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An Apple With Bite

Say what you want about Fiona Apple's past erratic behavior, her Denver performance showcased her considerable talent.

The policeman was standing near the entrance of the Fillmore Auditorium last Thursday night. Not that the crowd -- sizable, but under capacity -- that had amassed to see Fiona Apple presented any threat of violence or substantial drug possession. The cop -- an older man, crew cut, dressed in street blues, cap and all -- was no doubt helping the venue satisfy some insurance requirement, and given the relatively mellow vibe of the evening's proceedings, he had some time to kick back and watch the show. And make predictions about how long it might last.

"It's been fifteen minutes. I think she's probably almost done," he said to a nearby Fillmore staffer, amused by his own colossal wit. Seems that news of Fiona's recent onstage breakdown at New York's Roseland Ballroom -- which cut her performance down to sitcom length -- has even made its way into the consciousness of cops in metro Denver, thanks in part to late-night cheap shots by Jay Leno and his big-chinned brethren. The day after the New York debacle, Fiona's management assured promoters and those who had purchased tickets for the many remaining dates on the then-very-new tour that Apple's behavior had been atypical (even for her), and that the tour would go on.

And it has, with a slight shadow of apprehension mingling with the smoke and the spotlights over each crowd since the Roseland gig. That's not an altogether new sensation for Fiona-watchers. Ever since her bizarre speech at the MTV Music Awards in 1997 -- when Apple seemed truly pissed off about winning an award for her video, "Criminal" -- she has maintained a reputation as someone who just might pick the very next moment as the best possible time to freak out a little bit, someone who must be coddled and catered to, like that difficult relative who can turn a family reunion into a small piece of living theater. That fact has brought equal amounts of criticism and intrigue to her career -- cynics say it's a carefully crafted bit of imaging, while other observers recognize what might be a truly disturbed soul. Either way, members of Thursday's crowd seemed prepared for the possibility of a concert-killing temper tantrum. All things considered, it might have been wise to keep the car warm, in case it was an accidentally early evening.

But it wasn't. Apple, who rarely spoke to or acknowledged the crowd, seemed composed, and to hear her perform was to be reminded that the potential of witnessing some live prima-donna drama was not the evening's real draw. Apple's music was. Yes, she can be insufferable: Her self-obsessed complaints about the sheer hell of being a 22-year-old who's unlucky enough to be rich, famous and beautiful can grow tiresome. But she's also got more talent than many of her critics would care to admit. Whether or not you'd wanna have her as a neighbor, Apple can sing, play piano and write some devastating songs. And at least she's apologetic about those aspects of her personality that make her such a pain in the ass. Many of the songs on last year's excellent sophomore album, When the Pawn...make lyrical references to her own insanity, her own inability to deal with relationships and people, her lack of faith in herself or others. "I know that I'm a mess," she croons on "Paper Bag"; "Please forgive me for my distance," she pleads on "To Your Love"; "I wouldn't know what to say to a gentle voice," she admits casually on "The Way Things Are." She performed those three songs sitting behind the piano on the Fillmore stage Thursday night, and though her voice was clearly affected by the rigors of the road -- it was, at times, growly in a way that had more to do with an over-worked larynx than an aspiration to sultriness -- there were moments of fierceness that demonstrated Apple's vocal craft is a studied one. You could hear it in the jazzy stroll of "Paper Bag," in the foreboding "I Know," which Apple treats as a Southern-styled hymnal, and in the staccato sass of "Fast As You Can."

Apple was a tiny figure against the stage's immense backdrop of flashing lights and changing colors on a wide blank scrim, a minuscule focal point in Fillmore's vast hall (which you had to navigate strategically to obtain even moderate sound quality; it moved from an undefined soundmass to a decent mix at the far back end of the house -- a distance that reduced Apple to the size of a dashboard ornament). She sometimes attempted to dance (the one and only department where Britney Spears might have the upper hand); other times she sat down on monitors and seemed to be deciding whether or not she should pull out her hair. Crowd reaction varied between confusion, interest and empathy. Confusion, as in Is she going to have an epileptic seizure on her piano stool? or, Why is she screaming?, as she did when she introduced the members of her band -- not let's-go-team squeals, but screeching, piercing screams. Interest, as in the women who clustered in groups and sang every word of every song to each other at top volume. As in the people who could not keep their eyes off her. Empathy, as in the unshakable feeling that the figure onstage was not quite right at all, that maybe the tales about her life of therapy weren't just outgrowths of a publicity machine once again milking the "tortured artist" theory. The feeling that we really gotta clap for this girl, or she's going to go backstage and carve something in her own flesh. Throughout the evening, Fiona came across as a little person almost unable to carry the burden of her own talent, a young woman with too much emotional noise in her head. Whether or not that's truly cause for concern, it made for some damn fine art.

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