Fiona Apple officially kicked off her “return” this year at South by Southwest, and all reports from the festival have been overwhelmingly positive. Her first night in Chicago (One of two! Aren’t we lucky?) was a short but oh so sweet coast through some of her best early material, and the new songs that she debuted in Austin earlier this week.
The reactions people have been having don’t seem all that fanatical when you’ve actually witnessed it for yourself. Fiona’s live show has become more confident and impassioned than ever before, and her performance only got stronger as the night went on. Unfortunately, the evening ended much too soon. I’m not just saying that, either. Her opener and bandmate Blake Mills played only three songs, and her set lasted about an hour, possibly a little less.
Mills was sick and very apologetic, but still played and sang beautifully. Fiona took the stage not too long after him and came bursting through the gate with both teeth and fists clenched, tearing into “Fast as You Can.” She spent much of the set on songs from Tidal and When the Pawn, and only mined Extraordinary Machine for its title track.
Watching her sing these songs live is an entirely different experience than listening to her albums. Her recorded vocals seem cautious by comparison, and she really lets herself get into the spirit of each song and fly off the handle a little bit. Only when it makes sense, though. In “Extraordinary Machine,” for example, she was playful but no less passionate, perfectly matching the character of the song. Her performance of this particular song was a highlight for me. She completely nailed the performance, devouring every syllable and soaring on the bridge where she has faltered in the past.
The band also seemed to have stepped up from shows past. While it still had the feeling of a hodgepodge of fellow L.A. musicians, they were wise enough not to let their individual personalities get in the way of the songs. I was glad to hear Jon Brion’s mellotron samples from the records played live, particularly during the break in “On The Bound.” That has to be one of the greatest moments in the history of music (about 3:29 on the album track, in case you need a reminder).
It was heartwarming to see her take so much joy in performing. Apple is a real wordsmith, and she seems to revel in delivering each clever turn of phrase. During the moments where she isn’t singing she becomes completely entranced. At times she would close her eyes and seem to freeze in place or let her head fall onto the piano before taking another sip of hot tea.
By the time it was over, I of course found myself wanting more, and I wasn’t alone. A handful of believers and I stuck around by the stage as they tore down the set, as if there was some way in hell that she was going to do an encore at that point. Despite its short length, her set was wholly satisfying and I feel almost selfish thinking I deserve more after seeing a legend in such an intimate setting.
I can’t say how much I appreciate being able to catch her at a real music venue after Charter One Pavilion all those years ago. From the looks of it, she’s having more fun doing it this way, too.
Note: Danny is an intern at Schubas. Schubas’ co-owners opened Lincoln Hall.
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