Thackerville, OK Fiona Apple doesn't perform her songs -- they escape.
Agonizingly intimate compositions, sculpted from acute suffering, claw their way up and out of the 35-year-old singer-songwriter, who often seems barely able to contain her inchoate rage, lashing out at her own body. It's mesmerizing, awe-inspiring and often uncomfortable, as though you've walked in on someone in the midst of a total emotional breakdown.
Saturday night at the WinStar World Casino's Global Event Center, a cavernous, 3,400-capacity space just over the Texas/Oklahoma border, Apple spent 90 minutes exorcising her personal demons, singing songs of love shattered into a million pieces, a life not so much experienced as endured. Three days removed from an arrest in West Texas for possession of marijuana and hash, Apple did not address the episode on stage -- indeed, she said nothing until a brief burst of thank yous, towards the show's conclusion -- and preferred to let the music do the talking.
Compared to her South by Southwest set in March, where I felt Apple was working through some nerves, Saturday's performance was unswervingly confident from first note to last. Although there were moments of exquisite beauty, Apple was best when she was veering from the script and reworking her songs in a fashion befitting an performer somewhat grounded in jazz. Her smoked alto would, with little warning, flit upward, curved toward heaven and spiral back down, wrapping itself around lyrics that dissolved into pure feeling.
An intensely physical performer, Apple's fingers often leapt from the piano keys as if being scorched, and she spent much of the night at the microphone, crouching, flailing, or striking her hips with a disconcerting force. A tortured torch singer, her voice was likewise put through its paces: pleading, bleating and soaring, ejected from her lithe, taut body and lending an air of menace to her sharp-edged, clear-eyed pop.
Touring in support of her first album in seven years, The Idler Wheel ..., Apple, backed by an airtight quartet that included the opener, guitarist Blake Mills, dipped in and out of her back catalog -- opening with the roundhouse Fast As You Can, nimbly tiptoeing through Extraordinary Machine and, in the evening's high point, turning I Know (from 1999's When the Pawn ...) into a devastating confessional.
While the room was far from packed -- many of the seats towards the auditorium's rear were disconsolately empty -- those in attendance were fervent in their adoration ("I love you, Fiona!" rang out time and again during her set). She gratefully acknowledged the sentiment, but couldn't quite bring herself to reciprocate: "It costs too much to love," Apple moaned during Paper Bag. Better than many of her contemporaries, Fiona Apple understands the bittersweet proximity of pain and pleasure -- all you have to do is listen.