Fiona Apple and Blake Mills at the O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, 10/14/2013
Fiona Apple and Blake Mills
O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, St. Paul
Monday, October 14, 2013
"I'm not crazy," Fiona Apple told us. Twice. The second time she added, sweetly, "Just a little daffy." The audience, its devotion edging toward reverence, didn't need the reassurance. And yet, given the scrutiny Apple's live shows receive from pageview-clawing sensationalists, her protestations of sanity were sadly understandable. Where Apple's concerned, every hint of jitters is "erratic behavior" and any banter with some edge to it a "tirade," while the tiny 36-year-old singer's weight serves an open invitation for rubbernecking concern trolls to speculate about her health. Ugh.
What really matters, though, is that Apple sang the hell out of a bunch of great songs Monday night, backed by the loose, ingenious trio of co-billed guitarist Blake Mills, upright bassist Sebastian Steinberg, and drummer Amy Wood. The singer took the stage in a heavy black coat, which she flung off to a reveal a sleeveless black top and purple shorts, underscoring the concert's deliberately casual mood. There was a blackboard onstage, where she and Wood performed a synchronized, rhythmic chalk-scrawling routine, writing "TEACH ME HOW TO" simultaneously beside one another in stark pastels. Then Apple added underneath, in flowing cursive "to be free," a nice nod to the paradox that sometimes spontaneity doesn't come naturally.
Apple calls this the "Anything We Want" tour, but the mood is less self-indulgent than suggestive of a creative workshop. Mills, who's earned a rep as a virtuoso sideman supporting everyone from P!nk to Lucinda Williams, and who made a splash in Apple's band on her previous tour, gets to sing five of his own songs. Apple herself has been premiering two unrecorded tunes: the alternately flowing and choppy "I Want You to Love Me." and "Tipple," an uncharacteristically folksy number with Mills on ukulele that opened the set.
In general, Mills brought out Apple's rootsy side. His presence seemed calming to her even as his expansive guitar work had a kaleidoscope effect on her songs, splintering their structures only to ingeniously reconfigure their elements. If anything, Mills is too imaginative an accompanist (it's OK to just strum along sometimes, guy) but with Apple mostly avoiding her piano, Mills had a lot of space to fill with his chromatic diagonal digressions, abrasive slide licks, even the occasional lyrical flight.
Mills's own songs were sturdy singer-songwriter Americana possibly worth returning to (one standout verse consisted solely of a repeated "I know I fucked up"), but honestly what was most enjoyable about them was Apple's enjoyment of them. Whether harmonizing on the choruses, banging along on a big bass drum that she later sprawled across to get a better view of his performance, or just applauding, her fangirl enthusiasm was contagious.
When singing, Apple's intensity seems to insulate her from stage fright. Between songs, or when ceding the spotlight to Mills, she was plunged back into the reality of being onstage. She wasn't always sure how to channel her nervous energy: She tapped rhythm sticks against her thigh or neck, she twisted her ankles like an impatient kid, there was even some hopping. In short, she was a playful, excitable goof--a little daffy, like she said, but plenty likeable.
As for showstoppers, there was a gorgeous take on Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe," a dip way back into the past for "The First Taste" (from Apple's 1996 debut album, Tidal) and a downright bluesy duet with Mills on "I Know" that unleashed an inner Janis Joplin few suspected she had lurking within. But the show's defining moment came relatively early on, when Apple performed the song that gave this tour its title. "We can do anything we want," she repeated, with varied inflections, arms swinging. It sounded less like a boast than a reminder, and not just to herself.
Critic's Bias: I felt bad for that poor, lonesome piano, mostly abandoned on the side of the stage, especially since Apple's few trips to the keyboard -- particularly the frantic boogie-woogie-meets-Bernard Herrmann clusters on "Left Alone" -- provided show highlights.
The crowd: Fan club as support group -- adoring, respectful, mostly quiet.
Overheard in the crowd: Not much, fortunately, considering reports I'd heard of of the unruly audience at Apple's 2012 Orpheum show. "Be free love!" someone did shout between songs. Apple first said "Huh?" then, as though remembering her chalkboard message, responded "Oh yeah."
Random notebook dump: At one point Apple indicated to a bit of tape around her ankle with, she explained, the name Trevor on it. Trevor's apparently this guy in Berkley she was going to write back when she got the chance, but she only had his physical address so she couldn't email him and Trevor was just going to have to wait. "And that's how we do things around here," Steinberg cracked.
The First Taste
Every Single Night
Anything We Want
It'll All Work Out
I Want You to Love Me
It's Only Make Believe
Don't Tell Our Friends About Us
Waltz (Better Than Fine)