Getting ready for the supposed June release of her fourth studio album (The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do), Fiona Apple proved Sunday (in the first of two sold out shows at Lincoln Hall) that absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.
In the seven years since her last album and five years since her last tour, Fiona Apple's legend has grown despite little actual news or output in a way that has started to put her on par with the likes of Brian Wilson and Axl Rose: She's suffered from depression, been accused of being a recluse and even has her own "lost" album to boast in 2005's Extraordinary Machine.
So with last week's performance at South By Southwest and talk of a new album and tour, Fiona buzz seems to be at a recent high. Her fans are rabid, so it probably shouldn't have been surprising that demand for these two rare, small-venue shows literally crashed the Lincoln Hall website during the initial on-sale (the massive stream of comments both rational and irrational on the Lincoln Hall facebook page is really something to behold).
The last time I saw Fiona Apple live, it was in December of 1999, part of then Chicago alternative radio station Q101's "Twisted" holiday concert. The set didn't last long as Fiona made an emotional and abrupt early exit from the stage, a move that soon brought choice words from Liam and Noel Gallagher as Oasis was the next act scheduled to take the stage.
So my thoughts heading into Sunday night's show were:
- This has the potential to be a strange night.
- I hope she plays longer than twenty minutes this time.
And while Fiona Apple is nothing if not unpredictable, she did at least play longer than twenty minutes this time... but only by about a half hour. Still, when all was said and done Sunday at Lincoln Hall, while a bit short, I didn't hear one person complain about the eleven song, fifty minute set.
Taking the stage a mere ten minutes after opener Blake Mills finished, Apple caught some concertgoers a bit off guard as she started the show with a shriek of "Yeah, yeah!" dancing spastically as her band tore into a rowdy version of "Fast as You Can."
Looking a bit more gaunt than she did in the photo above from 2005 but better than she did last week at South By Southwest, Fiona sat down at the piano about midway through the opener. The piano was a bit overshadowed by the organ and the song was one of only a handful that Apple actually played piano on.
The set continued with "On the Bound," a performance marked by the contrast of her frenzied, emotional vocals and nearly expressionless demeanor on piano. While Fiona appeared to have some trouble with the song's higher vocal notes, her impassioned performance more than made up. More than simply a singer, Apple remains a polarizing presence you simply can't take your eyes off of.
An underrated lyricist, the outstanding acoustics at Lincoln Hall allowed lines like "You're all I need / and maybe some faith would do me good" in "On the Bound" to shine. But it was the lyrics of "Paper Bag" that seemed the most poignant to me:
"Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad, oh it kills
'Cause I know I'm a mess he don't wanna clean up
I got to fold 'cause these hands are too shaky to hold
Hunger hurts, but starving works, when it costs too much to love
And I went crazy again today, looking for a strand to climb
Looking for a little hope"
As Fiona writhed at times in a seemingly uncontrollable fashion on stage, it cannot be understated how personal her lyrics are and how strong an effect they clearly still have on her in the live setting.
But new music was performed too. "Anything we Want" and "Valentine" came back-to-back in the set, both featuring a bit more of a jazz feel. "Valentine" was actually one of my favorites of the night. The song built from Apple's piano and scat vocals early, a stand-up bass line eventually adding to the song's already eerie vibe. Fiona's vocals seemed to get stronger and stronger over the course of the night.
But it was the 1996 hit "Sleep to Dream" that stole the show. Standing up to sing for the duration of the song (Apple didn't play piano on it), an added emphasis on electric guitar gave the song a louder swagger that was impressive, one of the night's finest examples of just how tight Apple and her four-piece band are right now. With one hand on each side of her head and a crazed look on her face as she belted out one of her biggest hits, Apple appeared as if she could literally be on the verge of a breakdown at any moment.
Regardless, one thing is certain after Sunday's brief tour-de-force and that's the fact that Fiona Apple's is a voice that will most certainly not be stifled.
*** "Across the Universe" was not performed ***