So I guess I have to mention the Roseland meltdown. In March 2000, Fiona Apple played a sold-out show at the Roseland Ballroom, where her monitors weren’t working right or something, she freaked out, apologized a bunch, cussed out critics, cried a little bit, and then left the stage and didn’t come back. This has somehow become the defining event of Apple’s public-spotlight existence, the moment everyone decided she was some tortured-genius/spoiled-kid/crazy-freak, even more than that one time she wasn’t entirely thrilled to be winning a VMA for a video she didn’t like. But I’m not entirely certain how it qualifies as a meltdown. Axl Rose used to make a habit of stopping shows early when everything wasn’t perfectly to his liking. Lady Sovereign did it in Philadelphia last week. I’ve been to enough rap shows to know that very few rappers will work to put on a good show when the sound isn’t working right. You don’t hear people throwing the world meltdown around for any of these guys, but none of these guys have Apple’s wilting-willful-wallflower image, so the word doesn’t fit into the preordained narratives for any of their lives. With Apple, it’s almost as though people were just waiting for her to do something wrong.
But so maybe last night’s show was Apple’s triumphant return to the city of her birth, playing (I think) her first actual-venue show (not counting the Virgin Megastore show that Riff Raff riffed) since the whole thing went down, rocking a sold-out crowd at a venue eight blocks south of Roseland and driving meltdown memories from the minds of everyone there. I’d prefer to think it was just a better show. I’d never seen Apple live before, but from what I understand she’s gained a newfound confidence onstage; coming out from behind her piano isn’t something she would’ve done five years ago. She’s got a great band and a well-planned set, full of peaks and valleys. And there’s a world of difference between Roseland (big shitty concrete bunker) and the Nokia Theatre (swanky clean venue with clear sightlines and comfortable seating and chandeliers); sound problems simply aren’t going to be an issue at the latter. Apple had the deck stacked in her favor last night, so it wasn’t exactly a shock that she pulled through and played the show everyone hoped she would.
No shock, but fucking great just the same. When Apple isn’t singing, she looks something like the scared wounded kid everyone thinks she is: hair pulled up in crazy braids, enormous brown hippie dress, limbs flopping around, flustered while talking (“I think I’m so nervous that I don’t feel nervous. I think I’ve gone a little catatonic in the brain, so here’s another song.”) But when she sings, she hits a lazer-focus intensity, leaning eyes-closed into her mic, chomping down on hard consonants, finding a harsh syncopation on the verses, rolling out huge notes on the choruses. There’s an unforgiving hardness there that I wasn’t quite expecting, a contained fury that I usually associate with, like, Lil Wayne. Her heavy, percussive piano stabs worked against her band’s airy blip-tones. Jon Brion wasn’t in the band, but he might as well have been; the two guys with enormous banks of keyboards did as good a job as he could at recreating the floating watercolor synths of Brion’s productions. Mike Elizondo was in the band, and his supple, nimble bass was a great addition, though maybe someone needs to tell him that Detox isn’t going to finish itself. Apple’s newer material, often clumsy and heavy-handed on record, gained heft and presence. Apple stood at the front of the stage instead of behind the piano for about half the set, and it was a good look: she’s a strong piano player but an even stronger stage presence. She played for a full hour and a half, long enough to get through most of her recorded material. She did “Criminal” as an encore, a song that I’d half-expected would be her “Creep,” the disowned song. But she finished with a gorgeously assured solo version of “Parting Gift,” one of her only fond songs, and she dedicated it to her “momma.” It was nice.
And then there was the crowd. I’ve only seen a more rapturous audience once, and that was at the Scream Tour. Hungry after nearly six years of absence, stoked on forcing her label to drop her album, jammed in like sardines, these people were ready to show love, whooping like banshees between songs, between verses, every time she’d say anything between songs, everytime there was a remotely quiet moment that could be filled by cheering. People threw bouquets of flowers onstage. People screamed “you’re beautiful” and “welcome home” and all this stuff. I saw one girl faint and get pulled over the barricade before bland folk-pop opener David Garza even walked onstage. These people would’ve probably been happy if Apple had repeated the Roseland performance, and it’s a huge tribute to her that she completely justified their devotion.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine