As Dylan once put it, and as I whispered to my friend, if she doesn't want to be here, why doesn't she just go. Fiona Apple, with those wide unblinking eyes, and just outta psych ward countenance, glared from behind the piano with some serious loathing. This was five years after Fiona suffered a serious meltdown at Roseland and stormed off the stage after a coupla songs.
I thought she was gonna do the same thing. I thought she couldn't sustain her hostility, her dislike, her frothing vitriol.
But that was 2005 and seven years later Fiona is centerstage at the Governor's Ball on Randall's Island and wearing her long flowing white and purple dress and boots, and looking like a strung out anorexia junkie, Fiona stamped her feet clapped her hands, moved her waste and brought the sky at a picture perfect afternoon crashing around us. Then she turned to her bassplayer and smiled the widest smile you have ever seen/. Oh. This is why great artists fall in love with her. They are aiming for that smile.
Fiona Apple's triumphant return to the stage would've been impressive by anybody standards, but by Fiona's? It was impractical magic, mind over matter, astounding. I hate Music Festivals and every caveat continues unabated. Even with all the will in the world, and Governor's Ball lacked in nothing, it is a distracted happenstance, there is too much going on, the sets are truncated and there are too many distractions. On Sunday, Governor's Ball was everything you ever dreamt a music fest should be, but it still wasn't enough. I went because I wanted to see Fiona. And for that reason, it was worth it,
Her latest album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser..., is one of the best of the year, but so was Extraordinary Machine in 2005 and that didn't save her. And I skipped Cage The Elephant to maintain a great siteline (VIP section, front row to the side of the stage), but I had a great siteline at Kodak (Bestbuy!) and that didn't save it. But marching out of the wings to the opening strains to "Fast As You Can", Fiona placed her wallet and cell on the piano and dashed top the mic before blasting a supremely great version of the song, dancing in place, her big boots pounding the song alone. OK, folks, here's the dream we all dream of: Fiona Apple in a great mood, passionate, in control of her feelings and performing a streamlined 70+ set of hard as a diamond songs about emotional diasporas.
From "Fast" to "Criminal" Apple was inticraely commited to these songs, from crinkly her nose as yshe said "Extraordinary" to dancing and twirling and walking around her piano and then destroying us, wrecking us, with a "Sleep To Dream" so great, it made a mockery of my every expectation. SHe held the pic in both hands and soared through it, hitting every note, devastating the song, sending us to our own hell with a song on its own lips.
Nearly as great was "I Know" -which she hasn't been playing very often on this tour. "I Know" is a downbeat ballad off When The Pawn…, and not a song that ever made an impression on me -the break has too many blue notes. . But listening to it Sunday afternoon, I get it. This is another song that needs a big American Songbook singer to interprete it. Fiona does it more than justice, it is spellbinding song that doesn't rethink it but invests it.
Fiona has been giving indiscrete interviews about her mental illness this year, and her freaked outed, earnest, down the drain romantic malaise hit me as maybe difficult to translate live: she cuts too close to the bone, I thought she needed emotional distance for her songs and that inability to form on stage what was in her brain disaffected her. Maybe it is the Jon Brion connection. Maybe the Largo gig Alyson wrote about here changed her. The urge is to assume that she simply grew as a performer but with a seven year break, I don't really see it. On stage, she plays the piano and doesn't let the piano play her and only three songs occur there. This lets her move upon the stage and the dancing (AND SHE IS GOOD!) brings joy to the song. Indeed, the great bass parts (I have never noticed them before) bangs up against her body and her voice. It is truly a case of free your ass and your mind will follow, her hardass sorrow becomes a joyful letting go. It is catharses pure and simple and tremendous.
The set breaks down like this
Criminal – 2 songs
Pawn – 4 songs
Extraordinary – 3 songs
Idler – 3 songs
So, that's 12 songs and what was missing? Plenty, but only "Carrion", "Please Please Please" and "Hot Knife" were really needed. If Fiona had added those three and gave us 90 minutes plus, it would've been one of the greatest shows I've ever seen.
Later, Helen Bach would tell me that the reviews on twitter and from other publications was as glowing as mine and that both Stone and Pitchfork were raving. Absolutely. To not get this set… I don't see how you can't have loved it. During the instrumental coda to "Criminal", Fiona smiles and uses both hands to wave goodbye before leaving us to the rest of our lives. From flaming out to sneering in to perfecting her craft, Apple has grown and grown and is now not just a great recording artist but a great live performer as well.