Fiona Apple's Problem With Men
SF @ Fillmore Auditorium
Rating:  Pretty Good
Addicted to Noise    Mar 17  '97

by Beth Winegarner

I had never been to San Francisco's mythic Fillmore, until I trekked down to the city to see Fiona Apple.  In the 1960s, artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead staged memorable concerts as LSD-laced fans weaved among the red-curtained balconies or eyed the Victorian chandeliers sparkling overhead.

Fiona Apple is another matter entirely.  Although she draws from the same jazz and blues roots that Joplin did, this 19-year-old waif had a completely different presence as she took the stage and began singing the opening lines to "The Child Is Gone."  The crowd was low-key and friendly (aside from one heckler asking the singer from opening band Guadaloop to take her shirt off), happy to sway along to Apple's brand of confessional jazz-pop.

This is Apple's first run as a headlining performer, and she's just barely begun to break away from the song arrangements on her debut album, Tidal.   Even so, her live performances illuminate where Apple's tender spots are.   During the second verse of "Sullen Girl" she broke into a vengeful, angry snarl as she sang of her rape at age 12: "But he washed me shore/ And he took my pearl/ And left an empty shell of me." Her hands pounded at the piano keys, releasing her anger into the melody.

Apple stepped away from the piano several times during the show, allowing her backup keyboardist to take over as she told stories at the microphone, shimmied through instrumental interludes and headbanged her heart out. Before launching into the rhythm-laden "Sleep to Dream," Apple told the audience how the song had been born out of her inability to stick up for herself in relationships -- only daring to proclaim her independence in her songwriting.

Other stories illuminated Apple's relationships with undesirable men, including the "dumb, sweet guy" she wrote about in "Pale September."  One man from the audience was so fed up with her male-bashing that he requested, "No more dumb guy jokes!"

"Why, are you a dumb guy?" Apple quickly retorted.

Despite her venom for some of her ex-boyfriends, Apple was at home surrounded by her all-male band, who grooved stoically behind her throughout the set.   The show was clearly all about her, from the "I-was-such-a-dork-in-high-school" introduction to the sensuous "Slow Like Honey" to her long rant about how she had to give the angel wings she used to wear during "Criminal" to the Hard Rock Cafe.

Other moments were a reminder of how young Apple is.  Before playing solo piano on "Never is a Promise," she explained, "This next song is closest to me.  I wrote it when I was fifteen."  But when she goofed up during the second verse, she stopped playing and screamed, "Fuckin' A!" then tried the line again.  To her credit, the audience applauded her successful do-over.

 Perhaps her most powerful moment was the cresting end of "Criminal," which followed the long runs of bluesy piano and Apple's pleading, rocked-out vocal: "And I need to be redeemed/To the one I've sinned against/Because he's all I ever knew of love."  Apple's band jammed ferociously as she gyrated around the stage, hair flying and slim hips swaying to the inescapable whammy of the beat.

Despite her age Apple is already an enchanting performer; with time and practice she'll become even better.  The untrained quality of her voice is more obvious in live performance, alternately giving her songs an honest or unpolished feel.  But the maturity and intelligence of her musical performance are in stark contrast to her between-song banter, which makes her come off sounding like, well, a teenager.  Once Apple learns to let go and play with her songs, to groove with her band and the crowd more openly, she'll stop being simply a shadowboxer and become a knockout.   fin