Fiona Apple is known best for three things, by and large: 1) break-up songs that, to aptly quote one tweet, “Make Adele songs look like Taylor Swift”; 2) disappearing for protracted periods between albums; and 3) discomfort with live performances. In her earlier years, Apple developed a reputation for on-stage tantrums, a general sense of being uncomfortable in her own skin. Despite the passing years – and perhaps because this current tour marks only her second since the notorious Roseland meltdown – the label sticks. Intense and beating her piano as if it were one of the men who’ve done her wrong, Fiona is a guaranteed experience to behold live.
While Fiona has come a long way from 1996’s career launch via Tidal, her strange love-loathe relationship with performing is still evident. In taking the stage for the Toronto stop of her tour in support of new release The Idler Wheel… (her first performance in the city since 2005; her first full length set since 2000, as memory serves), Fiona wasted no time and launched immediately into one of her punchier singles, “Fast As You Can”, followed quickly with fellow When The Pawn… tune “On The Bound”. In the first four or five songs of the set, Apple’s voice wavered slightly, her body trembling as if uncertain of her abilities in spite of the vocal adoration of the crowd. By the end of the night however, Apple was roaring and the audience was tucked in her paws, happily mauled.
Chugging water desperately between each and every song, I was struck with a sense of Apple feeling rather ambivalent about being on stage. It was uncomfortable to watch Fiona disappear between songs to wander behind her band, avert her gaze from the fans and avoid any sense of engagement between melodies. Music seemed her only means of communication and that she did, belting out a well-blended collection of songs from all four albums, tucking new tracks in here and there like surprise gifts. Performing the same set each night, it is apparent that Apple’s pulled together a narrative of sorts, with older material feeding into a juxtaposing new tune. The mature acceptance of quirky “Extraordinary Machine” fed nicely into “Werewolf” and its message of love in letting go, while the chaotic “Every Single Night” charged into a bombastic rendition of “Not About Love”.
The strongest moments of the set came when Fiona strayed from the proverbial book, roaming wild with the deft guitar of Blake Mills and the rest of her band as her companions. A raging version of “Get Gone” with a snarled “Fucking go!” at its climax fed into a strangely raucous “Sleep To Dream” that jammed on for several minutes as Fiona alternately danced, swayed and sat on stage with her back to the drums, as if needing to feel every beat in her bones. Similarly, “Tymps (The Sick In The Head Song)” and mega-hit “Criminal” became sprawling numbers with their own interpretative dance and even moments of Fiona stretched out on her back, listening appreciatively. It was akin to watching a child discover the raw power of music for the first time and inspired a little of that awe in return.
Having never before seen Fiona perform, I was entranced and astounded by the hurricane of emotion unleashed in the sweaty venue. And yet, I couldn’t help but look to her hesitance, to the jutting bones and the “checking up on you” glances of band members and wonder if perhaps she ought to make like Kate Bush and quit the road, releasing sporadic albums at will to appease the masses. She is truly a powerhouse performer, but I cannot be entertained when concerned an artist is suffering above and beyond for the art. Scampering off stage after a gorgeous rendition of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” hand in hand with her drummer, rushing ahead as if a child rushing a parent, an unsettling irony strikes in the form of “Daredevil” and its guttural chorus: “Don’t let me ruin me/I may need a chaperone.”
Fast as You Can
On the Bound
Anything We Want
Sleep to Dream
Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song)
Every Single Night
Not About Love
It’s Only Make Believe [Conway Twitty]