My seat at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium on Monday, Oct. 14 was so high up that I felt dizzy looking around as I waited for Fiona Apple to take the stage. When she did, I was simultaneously drinking water to eradicate my dizziness, and craning to scratch an itch on my back. While I physically succeeded in completing both of these tasks, the rest of the show kept me in that emotional state—off-kilter and fidgety.
The show was less a concert and more a question, asking the difference between artist and performer. Apple is definitely the former, and while she has the skills to perform, she lacks the charisma and charm I’ve come to expect from the modern-day touring musician. She looked like a combination of Olive Oyl and Billy Elliott, thin and gawky, and capturing the latter’s haywire boy-in-ballet-class energy. For most of the show she carried sticks in both fists, and when she wasn’t beating them against her neck she was pulling them through the air like ski poles. She seemed most comfortable at the piano, and sounded best pounding away the creepy and consuming “Left Alone,” a stand-out track on an album of stand-out tracks (last year’s “The Idler Wheel…”). In fact, she sounded fantastic for much of the show. Her voice is haunting and her lyrics poetic and emotionally specific. It was just her presence that distracted.
This odd concert had me more critical of myself, as a spectator, than any other show I’ve seen. Would I rather she be honest on stage and, as a result, play her songs awkwardly and anxiously, stripping them of some of their gorgeousness? Or would I rather she perform dishonestly, and give her audience a polished, dramatic rendering of her songs? I really don’t know. What I saw on Monday was almost obscene in its rawness. She couldn’t get through a song or transition without making a strange joke to a bandmate (sometimes in the microphone, sometimes not) or jumping up and down as if in the midst of a tantrum. I wondered if that was a good night for her—she played her songs, she got applause, she walked off stage.
At the start of the show, she and drummer Barbara Gruska wrote in rhythm on a chalkboard to the side of the stage, “Teach me how to be free.” Perhaps this request was pointed at Blake Mills, the songwriter-producer who co-billed the night. In sound and demeanor, he is Apple’s opposite. Where she was erratic and fragile-seeming, he was calm and chilled-out. He sang his own folk-country songs and supplied syrupy and stinging guitar to Apple’s. He seemed to help ground her on the stage; when she was out of the spotlight and providing him with background vocals, she matched his smoothness and appeared to lose her self-consciousness.
Apple is notorious for cancelling shows and storming off. Most of her songs deal with anxiety and pain. So what was I expecting? I’m not even sure, but whatever it was, I was surprised with what I found. Monday’s show was at once shocking and refreshing in how little she seemed to care about faking it.