Fiona Apple isn’t interested in how anyone thinks she looks. I know because when I found myself back on my alma mater’s campus at Zellerbach Hall earlier this evening, she said she was on “the tip of ‘don’t fuck with people for how they look.'” Whether this is because she recently asked security to remove an audience member in Portland for heckling her appearance, or because she’s heard controversy over her waif-like physique since her “Criminal” video circa 1996, I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that none of that matters much to me. I didn’t go out this evening to gawk at a skinny woman, nor to speculate on why she’s thin. I went to hear her sing, because she’s a strange, dark little songbird that sings a haunted melody, and I wanted to experience it live. I didn’t know of Blake Mills, with whom Apple shared the stage, but I liked that they chose to call this tour “Anything We Want” after her song of the same name, and I went ready to see just what it was they wanted. The evening got a late start, owing to even crazier than usual Berkeley traffic because of construction on and near campus. While the show was originally slated to begin at 8, it was announced at the top of the hour that it would begin at 8:15. In actuality, it began right at 8:30.
Before anything could happen, Apple insisted on erasing the chalkboard that was present onstage, and then rewrote the same words she’d just erased. (“Teach me how, teach me how” over and over.) She dresses in an eclectic fashion (a floor-length, black satiny gown that could’ve been glamorous or a nightie, but wasn’t quite either over purple leggings, a red tank top and boots), this is how I got the impression that she doesn’t care much what you think. She kept fidgeting with a blue bandanna on her head before the first song began, which was a new one I didn’t recognize. (Possibly it’s called “Tipple” if Setlist.FM is to be believed.)
When it had concluded, Apple said, “I have to do this, it’s stupid… it’s not stupid, it’s actually pretty funny.” She went on to explain that she had recently called Rex Reed “a cunt,” because of something he did to her dad, but that it turned out to be John Simon, not Reed. “He’s still a bitch, he’s still an asshole… That’s what’s called a retraction when you don’t get the facts right!” She explained as she concluded her apology to applause. She again tried to tie her hair back with the bandanna on her head, which Mills helpfully told her was about to fall out. “I know,” she said, but began the next song anyway, ignoring the bandanna as it fell to the ground. The next song was “The First Taste” from debut album Tidal. When she’d finished, she picked up her bandanna and whispered (into her microphone), “I need some kind of hair tie!” Immediately, a woman near the front stood to hand her one as the room applauded in support. “Is there a doctor in the house?” Apple whispered to Mills as they began the next song, “Every Single Night.”
Next it was Mills’ turn at bat as I typed “Blake Mills is awesome. His guitar’s voice is melodic and aggressive in all the right places, just as is his own voice, it turns out.” His first song, though, “Unworthy,” had such a bluesy feel that it lacked a little diction and made it tough to identify at first. Apple helped him out on the bass drum before picking up what first appeared to be random objects to use as percussion for her next song: “I’ll take you, I’ll take you, I’ll take you, and I’ll take you,” she said to them. “And we’ll just see how it goes.” I laughed with the rest of the crowd at her quirky humor as she began the next song, “Anything We Want.”
As Apple arranged herself at the piano, Mills picked up an acoustic guitar, and the audience cheered as they tuned. Again it was Mills’ turn, this time for “Curable Disease,” during which he admitted, “I gotta do that again; I fucked up the lyrics!” This song made me realize that there’s something about him that’s vaguely reminiscent of Tony Lucca, or vice versa, and in my book that’s always a good thing. “That wasn’t my finest performance of the second verse!” Mills admitted, still chagrined. He was happy to note that the crowd was “so sweet about it,” adding that the next one “should redeem” him, telling Apple it was his “favorite song off of your latest record,” but also admitting that “you’ve only just begun playing it, so there’s still time to fuck it up.” (To be fair, I believe he was saying that there was time for him to ruin it, not suggesting that she might.) The song was “Regret,” and was followed by Mills on lead for his “It’ll All Work Out,” with Apple back to the bass drum.
For the next song, Apple returned to the piano. It was a new one I didn’t know, but I think it might be called “I Want You to Love Me.” “You know what’d be really funny?” she asked the crowd after the song. “If somebody lip-synched” a piano balled “but was really playing the piano.” Mills admitted to having “missed the first half of what you were saying,” to which she chided, “you always miss the first half of what I’m saying!”
“Typical guy, right?” He quipped.
“There is no typical guy.”
On that note came a dark but sexy cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” with Apple on lead. It was fantastic, and the crowd ate it up. Apple has this interesting habit of crouching down on the floor when she’s singing what might be an especially demanding part of a song (vocally or emotionally, you be the judge). During this particular song, she actually fell completely to the floor at its conclusion as the audience went crazy for her. Next up was a duet with Mills, possibly called “Seven,” featuring a guitar jam solo by Mills accompanied by a strange gyrating to the music on Apple’s part. Before the next song could start, a woman somewhere in the crowd shouted “SHUT UP!” and Apple’s head snapped up in alarm, trying to locate the offender. “Not you, Fiona, I love you! Please don’t shut up!” The next song, “Dull Tool,” began as people in the crowd continued to bicker, followed by several loud “shhhh!!”s. When the little ruckus died down, I was able to focus on the great little “clap track” the band had going on stage: I’m a sucker for that sort of thing on a record, and it’s even more fun live.
Before the next song, another distraction for Apple: this time, some clinking glass in the auditorium. Apple followed suit, producing some instrument made of glass upon which she drummed her nails, trying to return the sound. It didn’t quite work, but it was fun to watch her interact with her fans all the same. Mills took the lead again for “Don’t Tell All Our Friends About Me” and then Apple returned to the piano, waiting through a solo by drummer Barbara Gruska before starting “Left Alone,” which was one of my favorite songs of the evening. When it concluded, Mills took a moment to give Gruska and Steinberg a quick shout-out as they left the stage as Apple began “I Know.”
“Wooooo, I love you!” came a voice from the crowd. Apple laughed, as the same woman cried, “Go Fiona!” Apple rummaged through a plastic tub on the stage until she found what she was looking for: I think they were handheld bells. The rest of the band returned for the final song, which was the oddly uplifting, perfect note to end on: “Waltz (Better Than Fine).”
“And that’s all!” Apple proclaimed at its close, and mumbled something about “I love you,” and “goodnight!” before crouching to the edge of the stage to take a moment for her adoring fans. I saw her give hugs and sign autographs before she was ushered off the stage and I hurried out to my car. All in all, It was an interesting evening. I’d have to say Fiona Apple is something of an acquired taste, and while I’m not especially thirsty for Kool-Aid, she is a fantastic singer. Ever since she caught my attention with Tidal back in ’96 I’ve been curious about what she’s doing musically. She’s also so unusual that she’s entertaining, and her fans absolutely love her, which is always interesting to watch from the outside looking in, as was certainly the case this evening…