Fiona Apple Wins At The Ryman

Videos by American Songwriter

Fiona Apple, though debatably one of the most uniquely talented young artists of her generation, is constantly plagued by many things. Mild agoraphobia, maybe, or, fights with her own brain, and as she sings, howls and sings on “Every Single Night.” But perhaps most often, it’s a consistent, nagging narrative driven by the media, about “that” Roseland show. About her weight. About the MTV acceptance speech. About her just being a her.

(Click here to view photos from the show.)

It was hard not to think about all of this during her show on Friday night at the Ryman, for the singular fact that, well, it’s just all so damn frustrating. This was the third time I’ve seen Apple play live – and the first was at Roseland. Yes, I was at the infamous show where she departed the stage minutes in, complaining about the sound. And I left that night feeling disappointed, sure, (after all, I was in college, and I’d had to forgo some meals and beers in order to buy that ticket) but siding a little with Apple: she’s scrutinized to every last little vein in her constantly-discussed frame, and the sound at Roseland is indeed horrible. Terrible. You’d be better off listening to a live stream of the show on your computer through cheap headphones.

If you’ve never heard any of those recurring narratives that plague Apple, you’d have no clue when she took the stage, walking straight to the mic and launching into an electric version of “Fast As You Can.” You’d see a oddly direct, eclectic performer whose voice can spiral from scream to high-pitch-perfect to a low growl in a span of mere seconds. For someone whose music often breaches on the avant-garde or jazz more than anything else, this song corralled pure rock and roll: the band, including opener and guitarist Blake Mills, played crisp and searing. This would be the first of many “old” songs – meaning not off of her recent release, The Idler Wheel, but a balanced set that divided her time between piano and mic stand, between old, middle and new, between soft and shout.

Of course, her catalogue is rich but brief – Apple marinates on albums, not microwaves: and she’s only had four, beginning with 1996’s Tidal. It could for that reason that the crowd, unusually loud for a mostly sit-down affair, was so involved, emotional and riveted. It’s easy to lazily dismiss this as shrieking-girlism, but as a non-shrieking-girl, there’s a reason her songs take on so much meaning: placed so far apart and carefully formed, each becomes a poignant touch piece for segments of life. While some modern artists who release disposable records every six months maybe dominate seconds, hers grab years. And I saw many people there in their late-twenties/early-thirties (my, ahem, age group) who surely could remember the time, when Apple launched into “Shadowboxer” after “On the Bound,” when they listened to that song in their teens, drinking stolen vodka form their parents’ liquor cabinet, wondering how someone so young could be so good.

There’s an oriental rug in the middle of stage, and at times, Apple would take to her knees on it, writhing with the music, nearly pounding fists to the ground. Or she’d dance, gyrate, her signature surrender to the chaotic undertones of both the music and life in plain view. Call it bizarre all you want, but doing so is forgetting that this isn’t a piano recital: this is Apple being rock and roll, drawing from references that span from Jimi Hendrix to Billie Holiday to Bill Withers.

After “Paper Bag,” she played the first new song, “Anything We Want,” a bittersweet, complex reflection on youth vs. adulthood: “I looked like a neon zebra shakin’ rain off her stripes” she sang, reinforcing the visceral lyrics by shaking her body and quivering her voice. “Get Gone,” off of When the Pawn, followed, and then her early single “Sleep to Dream.” She doesn’t play it tired or like a dusty hit that plagues her: rather, she infuses it with even more acid than ever, her “don’t forget what I told you/Don’t come around/I’ve got my own hell to raise” lyric sung hoarse and harsh, nearly evoking Tom Waits. While the concert had slower moments, like on “Carrion” and “I Know,” most songs met this level of intensity, from the insistent “Not About Love,” to “Daredevil” to the closer “Criminal,” which she performed in a voice gutted as if she was singing at the tail end of an argument, at that point where your throat is stripped and dry, and you’re struggling to just get the words out, and maybe you’re just yelling too much, because you’re out of options.

But lest you think this was a battle she lost. “It’s two minutes later, I’ve gone off stage and everybody clapped and I came back,” she says in her only real moment of  stage banter during the show. An encore would be predictable, and she’s over that point. Instead, she launches into a cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” back in that voice we knew when we first met Apple back in ’98: eerily smooth, perfect pitch, a new-age Nina Simone. She grabs the mic stand directly, her hair falling long down her back, and then moves aside to allow Mills a solo moment, hugging her arms around her body. At the end, she hustles off stage in a near run, and the lights go on, but that last note is still echoing off the Ryman walls. And in a perfect world, that would be the only leftover baggage.

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