By Maura McAndrew | 30 November 2012
Chief among the myriad problems of becoming a mainstream recording artist (i.e. one backed by the major label publicity machine) is that is makes certain kinds of venues pretty much off limits. Unless you’re Bob Dylan and spend 90% of your time skulking around the country hoping you’ll be mistaken for a homeless drifter, if you’re a popular enough artist you can no longer choose your venue size. Instead you’re likely to find, like Fiona Apple amidst her 2012 tour, yourself thrust into corporate-run, 2,000+ capacity theaters with Coors Light signs adorning the walls.
Stage AE, the American Eagle-sponsored venue Apple played in Pittsburgh, is certainly not the worst offender—it’s on the small side for an artist as popular as she is, and rather than stadium-style seating it features an open floor—but throughout the entirety of the show, I was bothered by fantasies of how wonderful she would be in a much more intimate setting. There’s just something ill-fitting about seeing Apple, whose music can be fairly defined as the mold for post-2000 singer/songwriter “intimacy,” playing in a place with a five-foot barrier between stage and crowd and a Steelers game on at the bar (seriously, a TV in a concert venue is the worst).
Anywho, you guessed it: Apple put on a great show—despite the expectation that she might be flaky, fragile, or intermittently crying; despite the venue; despite the pervasive knowledge that she may never play another intimate show again. This is what we must all accept. And not only did she put on a great show, but she put on a professional show, something her legions of obsessive fans, with their tumblr moodboards of nostalgic teen-angst images, might not really have wanted. Cheerful and no-nonsense, Apple and her talented band did the best they could to close the gap between the subtlety of the songs and the large, distracted space they had to fill.
Yet, Apple delivered on emotional investment. She seemed to give all she had from the onset, and among When the Pawn… classics like “Fast as You Can” and “On the Bound,” her voice was forcefully ragged in that way voices can often are at the end of a tour, so much so that I worried for her as she stood on the precipice of some high notes. But the control Apple has over her instrument is admirable: as the set went on, her voice proved to be in very good shape indeed, from the scat-y histrionics of “Left Alone” to the restrained and beautiful “I Know.” Her vocals were the obvious focal point of the night—and of anything Apple does of course—though the songs were buoyed particularly by her right hand man (and opener), young guitarist Blake Mills, whose moony 1950s-style slides added a fuller sense of atmosphere to ease the transition of some of the barer material into a live context.
It was the last night of the tour’s American leg, and Apple, whippet-thin and dressed down in jeans, tank, and ponytail, seemed energetic and happy, dancing, running back and forth between piano and center mic, and barely taking time out to breathe between songs. The brisk clip of the set might’ve been the only flaw in an otherwise great show—some already-frantic tracks Apple cranked up a bit too far. She even seemed disappointed at the time restriction, stating before the encore, “I know we have some sort of curfew…” But her zest for her older material proved extremely refreshing; “Criminal” was the only notable omission, though I think we’ve all heard that enough for a lifetime. Gems like “Shadowboxer,” “Get Gone,” and “Extraordinary Machine” made it in, alongside most of the material from The Idler Wheel….
One unexpected benefit to seeing Apple live was hearing her evolution as a performer all in the course of one evening. Those earlier songs, so accomplished for such a young songwriter, still sound great (“I Know,” in particular, really moves me every time I hear it, its subtle, shaky take on a torch ballad so endlessly affecting), but the songs from The Idler Wheel…, which I’ve already declared exceptional to anyone who has ears, stood out as truly remarkable. Especially onstage with a backing band, there’s just so much to be heard in them: the dynamics built in quirky instrumentation and arrangements, unexpected dime-turns in tone, emotions spilling out, bottling up, pulsing quickly and coarsely like blood through veins. The Idler Wheel… portion of the set began with “Anything We Want,” perhaps one of the record’s blunter weapons, and peaked at “Left Alone,” that skittering undefinable tune that I didn’t even think would translate to the stage. I was wrong: it was by far the best song of the night, allowing us a glimpse of Apple pushing the limits, skating out further. It was a preview of the legendary musician she can, and probably will, become.
Which was more than enough for me. While the show wasn’t life-changing, it was Apple-affirming; while she was candid (acknowledging her Texas arrest, expressing her gratitude, etc.), she was fairly tight-lipped, allowing the music, pure and simple, the night’s focus, showcasing a beautiful body of work with no dicking around, posturing, or VH1 Storytellers-ing. In other words, she had her shit together. And instead of leaving and returning for an encore, Apple chose to remain onstage, pointing the mic to the crowd and inviting us to yell anything we wanted at her for a few minutes. After a Conway Twitty cover and some wrung-out spellbinders (“Every Single Night,” “Not About Love”), Apple exited in a similarly abrupt fashion: “I hate to say this, you guys…but bye!” With that, she launched into a cheerleader-style jump and scurried off stage left, her band following.