It must be terrifying.
Sitting that close, just about anything would have been entertaining. Blake Mills—pulling double-duty as Apple’s guitarist and sharing most of her band as the opening act—certainly kept my attention. I came to like him over the course of the show. He played a sentimental version of Santo & Johnny’s great instrumental “Sleepwalk,” making a non-joke about Lou Diamond Phillips in the song’s introduction. That stands out, but the highlight of his set was a new song called “Don’t Tell All Your Friends About Me,” which contains a brutal refrain of “I know I fucked up.” (Seattle Weekly asked him about that song, turns out.) The cursing seemed to break character for Mills, who looked a bit like Sean Penn in profile and whose sweaty hair began to fall, in Elvis-style clumps, down over his forehead as the set progressed. For the most part he was a man living in the wrong decade, but on that song he was right in the moment.
In the introduction to that tune, some women in the front row—the front row contained precisely one man—were chatting loud enough to bleed over Mills' guitar strums. The crooner turned his head to look down at them, totally expressionless but focused. He just stared a while. The chatty ladies were oblivious to his stare, or maybe a little annoyed by it. I was just behind them in the second row. I was looking up from typing some notes into my phone when I saw his head turn. I froze, terrified that he’d think I was texting and call me out in front of the whole theater. I've been called out once before, for looking bored at the Odd Future show (I had a stomach ache, but I was also bored.) Mills' gaze moved up to meet me, and I just smiled real big, lowering the phone slowly and slipping it into my pocket as smoothly as I could. I think he saw the phone, but he also returned the smile, as if to say “thanks for noticing that I'm playing a show.” The women continued their discussion until the middle of the first verse. I kept my phone in my pocket for the rest of the set.
Before he left the stage, Mills gave a few pointers on being a Fiona Apple audience. “She loves it when people get crazy between songs,” he says. “But the catcalls and screams during the songs? Not so much.” Few in the theater would heed Mills’ advice. I don't know if I've ever heard "I love you" screamed as many times as I did last night.
After Mills stepped out and a fog machine started blowing in, I took an awful photo of the empty stage with my front-facing iPhone camera (the back one is broken). I didn't want to risk being seen with my dumb phone out during Apple's set. I hate it when people take phone photos during concerts. That black thing is the piano.
There was a 40-minute intermission between Mills and Apple, which didn’t seem particularly strange given Apple’s reputation as a scatterbrain. My plus one, having seen Apple play late before, arrived to the show around 9:15 pm. When the lights finally dropped about 9:35, though, a skipping, childlike Apple—wearing mysterious torn red material around her neck; “I made this t-shirt into a cape,” she’d announce later—grabbed the microphone and apologized for being “so fucking late.” She had just started her period, she explained to the shrieking crowd, and her tourmates thought she was joking about needing a tampon. The largely female crowd roared with applause. She didn't talk much for the rest of the night, aside from the cape comment and a misty-eyed declaration for a friend in the crowd—"Patrick, I don't want to see you"—were exceptions.
The band opened with an electric take on “Fast as You Can” that was almost Prince-like in presentation, then moved on to some bluesier fare, including a gutwrenching version of “Shadowboxer,” a song that Apple seemed to still have a real emotional connection with despite its utter played-outness. When she sat down at her piano, the singer swayed back and forth as if blind or terribly excited. Up-close, Apple—her hair thick with product and glitter; her cape sloppily hanging to her side—is all right angles. Her jaw is sharp, her neck is muscular, her knuckles are red and her hands seem fidgety and ungraceful until they hit the keys. She often sings through her teeth, growling the words out and looking ready to find and kill whatever “you” is her muse in a given song. I've seen some pretty hardcore rappers in my day. I have never seen anyone look as furious as Apple onstage.
Fiona Apple songs are almost always “me and you” songs. They're songs about going out of your mind or about wanting to get out of your mind. Even her most intricate and masterful lyrics—and new album The Idler Wheel... is full of those—seem to address the kind of mercurial emotion that teenagers know they’re losing fast and hesitate to let completely loose. These are up-all-night diary scrawls, and Apple’s live performance, especially when she’s out from behind the piano, is a lot like watching a teenage kid left home alone. She turns the stereo up as far as it will go and dances with complete abandon. She's wasted without being wasted. Or maybe she was wasted. I kind of hope so. It’s painful music that she's got to keep revisiting—painful and personal and a little too much. When Apple says “I miss that stupid ache,” everyone in the building knows exactly what she means. And it's kind of hard to watch a whole room—though her fans are mostly female they are diverse as fuck—zero in on the hardest moments and scream for them. It's more than a sad song, it's a sad excavation of Apple's guts that probably disturbs some really necessary organs with each new scrape. I've rarely seen anyone work harder onstage. It might offender her to say she reminded me of a young Iggy Pop (sans broken glass and other weird shit), but that's how I felt about it. There's a playfulness here and I know some of it is theatrics, but there was also an awful lot of ache. If nothing else, the woman makes noises that must hurt to make.
The tension between pissy little kid and poet laureate in mourning was on display all night at the Schnitz. When it came time to play “Criminal,” Apple began by dutifully pushing through the verses, until at the halfway point she decided to improvise lyrics and basically jazz the fuck out of it. It was like watching a cat finally catch that mouse and realize it was more fun alive than it is dead. From my privileged vantage I watched her push herself through boredom and back to something more urgent—back to that stupid ache—and then lose it again.
“Sleep to Dream” found Apple removing the t-shirt cape. She held the red sash that circled her black dress awkwardly near the small of her back, struggling like an escape artist in a straight-jacket to break free or find some comfortable position. Elbows all over the place. Eventually she’d fall operatically to the ground and do what looked like drugged yoga, then prop her ass up on the drum riser and smile devilishly when the cymbals crashed a few inches from her ears (side note: Apple doesn't do any of that in-ear monitor bullshit, as far as I can tell). By the time she came up for air, she had lost her hair-tie and her bangs jutted upward at more odd angles. She looked fucking crazy. It was great.
For most of the rest of the show, Apple stood cranelike on the stage, methodically clapping fist into palm behind her back while making a capital P with her skinny legs. She headbanged a bit, too. For the most part she just looked down at the monitors, but occasionally she’d look up and crack a smile at the edges of her mouth. Her eyes would lock to a fixed point and the tough veneer would fade. Maybe she saw someone singing along. Maybe she found her friend Patrick. Anyway, I can’t help wondering how this woman would have grown up if she’d never signed to the majors. Would she be even more Cat Power-esque, or would she have found herself working the audience and striving for a hit.
When you sit that close to the stage, you’re almost an unwitting part of the show. I kept as low a profile as I could. I slouched. I wish I had worn something nicer. You've got to be careful about not distracting from anyone else's experience when you're up front, I think. You can abuse that privilege—like the woman in the middle of the front row who screamed “This has been really fun!” during a pin-drop stand-up bass solo.
Speaking of stand-up bass, that otherwise elegant instrument featured a partially peeled-off sticker affixed to the pickup. It read “SUPPORT VAGINAL PRIDE.” Maybe it was a truly gender-fucking statement from the gray-haired, male bass player. Maybe it was a little joke played on him by Ms. Apple. When they finished the song, she blew him a kiss and he mimed his head exploding all over the stage. There were intimate moments like that between Apple and each of her band members. She whispered in her drummer's ear once or twice. She shared a laugh with the keyboardist. I thought she'd cry at the end of a particularly moving slide guitar signature.
Apple's eyes did begin to well up a bit during the amazing "Anything We Want," a song with a chorus that jerks away from the listener like a dollar bill on a string, then turns out to be a 50. That was the song I wanted to live in all night. It was still haunting me when Apple announced that "this next song is the song we call the encore," and briefly thanked the crowd before a really nice cover of Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe," which allowed Apple to shred what was left of her throat.
It all happened pretty quick. When you're up that close I guess you kinda lose track of time.