I think I'm happier I didn't know whether or not I would be going to see Fiona Apple last Friday night, at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg, until less than 24 hours before the show. (I was offered a review ticket the day before.) Because otherwise, I might've suffered some sort of cardiac event freaking out over whether the songstress, current majority shareholder of music that Means Something to me, would betray the near-divine image I'd held of her for over a decade. Or worse, and much more likely, that she would be good—so good that her performance would obliterate my understanding of emotion and feeling, leaving me numb to any and all experience. (In hindsight, I can say that the latter is almost entirely true.)
At concerts, I often weigh the fleeting concern that I'm irreparably damaging my hearing by not wearing ear plugs. But never before has this worry stemmed from the volume of the audience, rather than the performer, as it did at the Music Hall that night. Normally, concertgoers give a variety of laudatory responses to different parts of the set list, but whether Apple played a popular favorite ("Paper Bag"), a fan favorite ("A Mistake"), or a Conway Twitty cover ("It's Only Make Believe"), the crowd screamed at literally every move she made.
And move she did! At times, Apple appeared feral, jilted, and "150% cat," as I later remarked to a friend. She was wearing at least three taut tank-tops and a gold belt that may have been helping anchor the weight and strength of her voice and the vast emotional range she summoned on call. She snapped forward at the microphone in predatory movements, glared with intense interest at her band members, and once clutched her face in her hands, during instrumental downtime in "Criminal." Apple seemed to be struggling to contain herself, fulfilling the credo put she put forth in the 2006 interview with Quentin Tarantino on Sundance's Iconoclasts, when she remarked, "If you're not overflowing with something, then there's nothing to give."
Apple was definitely overflowing that night, and so was I, whether from the ebullience of being among insanely like-minded Sullen Girls, the emotional contact high from her unguarded self-expression, or the complete realization of what has always drawn me to her music—that someone can take the fluctuating painfulness and exuberance of desire and love, and channel it into something precise and truly beautiful without diluting it. As her vulnerability onstage suggests, Apple heralds sobriety in our washed-out culture of beta-blockers and sarcastic self-preservation; she enables the emotional. And during "Every Single Night" (one of three very promising forthcoming tracks she previewed), as she feverishly quavered, "I just wanna feel everything," I was struck by how rarely that kind of bald yearning is celebrated today, rather than mocked.
"It's Only Make Believe"
I, too, wanted to feel many things at the concert, but what I actually did feel was dictated by Apple and her vacillating mood-ring of broadcasts: cheery-yet-tragic unrequited love in the new track "Valentine," boisterous rage and mental instability in "On the Bound," searing indignation in "Sleep to Dream." The audience itself reacted in a supportive way, both to Apple and to each other. Despite a sold-out house that night, the Music Hall betrayed the rowdy, beer-spilling claustrophobia I associate with shows there. And there was a lot of touching—in a platonic, arm-over-shoulder way—and a lot of looking one's neighbor in the eye and mouthing lyrics emphatically.
Of course, as Apple will tell you, nothing this good lasts forever, or even for much longer than an hour. Exiting on Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe" to ground-shaking applause, she turned to the crowd, said "I do love you" quietly into the microphone, and disappeared backstage. The audience lingered for a few minutes of full-out screaming and shouting, pleading for an encore. But it was to no avail—positive reinforcement isn't a driving force in Apple's mind, nor should it be. I was a bit crestfallen about the short, 12-song set, but ultimately appreciative to have witnessed such a brutally real performance. I don't doubt that Apple does genuinely love her fans. But a big part of that is, for her, knowing when to stop; we just get to be there when she starts.