Fiona Apple and Blake Mills
Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013
Better than: Getting kicked out of a venue by a furious Fiona Apple while hundreds of people watch, which sounds quite literally like a nightmare.
When Fiona Apple needs a hair tie, you better believe a girl in the second row will shoot instantaneously out of her seat to offer Fiona Apple a hair tie. "Thank you," murmured Apple sheepishly, crouching down at center stage in her floor-length black satin dress (slip?) to retrieve it, gently making fun of herself as she stood to pull her short, dark hair back. "Is there a doctor in the house?"
It's hard to know how many other people at Zellerbach Hall had prepared for last night's show by reading accounts of the singer's alleged breakdown onstage in Portland a few nights ago, in which she tearfully booted a heckler who told her to "get healthy." But from the level of reverence in the room, it seemed like most of us just wanted to keep her happy. Or at least, as happy as Fiona Apple is capable of being.
For the majority of the 16-song set, it almost seemed like we'd succeeded. Even for a tour billed as "Anything We Want" -- Apple and Mills announced at the tour's start that they had an idea of "roughly 25 percent" of what they'd be playing -- it was an emotionally and sonically turbulent hour and a half: at times unbalanced, unpredictable, and uncomfortable, but generally in the best possible ways.
There was Apple's ethereal physical presence: draping her body frontward into the letter C over a giant bass drum, kicking one purple-socked foot into the air, hunched like a giant bird at the piano, gawkily slapping her own thighs as percussion, folding herself into a ball on the ground behind the mic, seemingly shaking with the force of her own vibrato (especially during the gleefully freeform "Anything We Want," though it was "Every Single Night" that gave us chills). There was her vocal capacity to go from childlike sing-song to sultry femme fatale to painfully full-throated rage at the drop of a dime ("Regret"; pretty much everything else), her use of a weird wooden statue and glass fishbowl-shaped vase as instruments and, of course, her tendency to say things out loud between songs that surely made more sense to her, in her head, than to anyone else, and then only half the time fully into the mic.
"It has to be done, so I gotta do it now," is how she opened the evening, definitely not talking to the audience, as she hurried over to the chalkboard perched behind her piano and wrote "TEACH ME HOW TO BE FREE" with certain words repeating in an apparently important pattern (she messed up the first time, had to erase words with her bandana and start over).
Grounding Apple throughout was her co-headliner, the exceedingly talented yet very aw-shucks singer/guitarist/producer Blake Mills, in a beanie, being a 27-year-old dude in a beanie -- that is, a 27-year-old who has toured with Lucinda Williams, Jenny Lewis, and Band of Horses -- channeling a little Dylan and a little-less-miserable Elliott Smith, singing songs about having fucked up in a relationship while playing very loud electric guitar. (By our count, by the time the show was over, he had played five electric, one acoustic, and an eight-string ukulele.)
Backed by Barbara Gruska (The Belle Brigade) on sparse, dramatic percussion and Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing) on upright bass -- both of whom also acted as grounding forces in their restraint -- Apple and Mills took turns supporting each other, alternating mainly between songs off last year's The Idler Wheel... and Mills' solo work, including several of his new songs and a sweet folk-lullaby version of "It'll All Work Out" (off his 2010 album, Break Mirrors), with Apple on backup vocals. In a few places they both truly shone -- a bluesy cover of Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe," "Dull Tool," released on the This Is 40 soundtrack, of all things, and a jagged, raw "I'll Know," for which the rhythm section momentarily left the pair alone in the spotlight, which the pair in turn used to stretch the song out through its last possible breath.
They ended on "Waltz (Better Than Fine)," in which Apple insists that "everyone else's goal's to get big headed/why should I follow that beat being that I'm better than fine?" And from the physically exhausted but also energized and perhaps genuinely pleased look in those wide Fiona Apple eyes, you almost kind of believed her.
Before leaving the stage, she took in a standing ovation, then crouched down once more to return that girl's hair tie.
Quote of the Night: "Rex Reed's still a bitch, though. He's still an asshole, really, because of what he said about Melissa McCarthy, and I guess I'm just on the tip of, don't fuck with people because of how they look." -- Fiona Apple, after correcting herself for mistakenly calling the critic Rex Reed a "cunt" the previous night over some beef having to do with her father. She had, in fact, meant to direct that term at the critic John Simon.