Some performers make their jobs look easy. Fiona Apple, on the brink (sort of) of releasing an album after a seven-year hiatus, is different. It’s clear every song is a herculean effort. You could see it on her face, scrunched and lined, infusing every syllable with the intensity of whatever inspired the song in the first place. You could see it in her frequently cited performance style, how she jerks, sways, tics and trembles, giving off the impression that she is so tightly bottled, so densely wound, that the display we get at her live shows is only a fraction of what she’s got. Though she barely acknowledged the audience with stage banter, in her shy way, she gave us 110 percent.
“No one stood a chance,” an audience member remarked about getting tonight's tickets which garnered so much demand that it crashed Lincoln Hall’s servers. Indeed, the floor was packed with parents with the night off, couples on dates and college students. The show was scheduled for eight, but by eight-thirty Apple still wasn't out. Her piano was set: a collection of candles in red and white glasses and a mug of hot tea.
Finally, without a greeting, she appeared onstage. Apple’s lithe frame pulsed with power throughout “Fast As You Can”. Her voice and manner is exposed as can be, all raw, messy, unbalanced emotion. It more than compensates for her repeated sequestrations outside of the spotlight, her lack of explanation onstage or elsewhere; her physical performance communicates more than sufficiently where’s she’s been and where she is.
Apple’s third album, Extraordinary Machine, was absent from the set list, with the exception of the title track. Every song elicited eruptions of applause, and a quick smile before the songwriter launched into the next number. Revisiting her 1996 debut, Tidal, she ripped into the the defiant, pissed off “Sleep To Dream.” When The Pawn... material featured too: During “On the Bound’s” hook, her voice became gritty and hoarse: “You’re all I need/and maybe some faith would do me good.”
New material included “Anything We Want,” where Apple tapped what looked like a giant rusty nail with a thin metal bar; and “Valentine.” “Every Single Night,” painted a portrait of self consciousness and anxiety that most can relate to, but few have captured so eloquently. Alternately rocking and fidgeting, she leaned on her piano, head hanging between her arms as the band played. Other moments she looked as dazed as a vampire off its blood supply. By “Criminal,” Apple’s finale, her voice wore at the edges. To cheers, she spoke what might have been her longest sentence of the show. “Thank you very much for coming; wonderful night.”
Like most of Apple’s career moves, she did what felt right for her. She won’t rush to make albums she’s not ready to make, and if her voice crackles and tires, she won’t stay for an encore. Fittingly, the now standard fake-exit is too fake for Apple. And usually I couldn't care about encores, but tonight with a set just around the hour mark, I really wanted one.