At 35, Fiona Apple has evolved in many ways from the scantily clad, 19-year-old minx writhing around in the controversial, Grammy-winning video for her hit song “Criminal” – some good (musically), and some a bit shaky (personally). But through all her growing pains, she’s never lost the poetic brilliance, melodic gift and raw, crackling energy that made her an instant star. If anything, her experiences in life – and especially in love – have made her an even more intense performer, as evidenced by her riveting show Sunday night that thrilled, mesmerized and seduced the sold-out crowd at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
Apple took the stage in support of her delightfully challenging fourth album, “The Idler Wheel …,” and was met with a standing ovation, perhaps one part pure fan worship and also a show of support after her Sept. 19 arrest for hashish possession at a Texas border checkpoint, followed by tabloid-worthy rantings about her treatment by the police. Dressed simply – and modestly – in a sleeveless white top and long skirt, Apple refrained on this night from discussing the event, though the omission from her set of the concert staple “Criminal” and its untimely title was somewhat telling.
Backed by her opening act, virtuoso guitarist Blake Mills and his excellent band, Apple tore into the racing, piano-driven “Fast As You Can” from her second album, “When the Pawn …,” with an almost shocking ferocity, her ragged but controlled voice spitting out the words “Baby scratch me out/Free yourself/Fast as you can.” She followed with the bluesy “On the Bound,” and her howling, guttural vocals were so powerful on the line “You’re all I need” that one couldn’t help but wonder how such a sound could radiate from this tiny body (Apple can’t weigh much more than 90 pounds).
“Shadowboxer” showed off her instinctive skills on the piano – she alternately bangs on it angrily, plays certain chords as if the keys are too hot to touch, or caresses it like a tamed tiger – and also revealed one of many emotional scars with the line “What a cunning way to condescend/Once my lover and now my friend.”
Other highlights included the early fave “Sleep to Dream,” featuring Fiona’s voice in all its husky glory and Mills’ amazing ax-work – toward the end he turned the anchoring guitar riff into a distorted, stop-start solo that morphed into a dissonant, psychedelic jam with Fiona convulsing and slamming her fists into the floor; the deceptively playful “Extraordinary Machine,” during which she declares, “If there was a better way to go then it would find me”; and the deliriously dismissive “Get Gone,” where Fiona hisses, “You got your game, made your shot/And you got away with a lot, but I’m not turned on/So put away that meat you’re selling.”
It’s this type of lyrical honesty that’s made Apple’s followers so fervent and loyal (often, it was difficult to hear her sing over fans screaming “I love you Fiona!”). On almost every song, she gives us a glimpse into her tortured soul, and like a true artist, she takes her suffering and creates something beautiful.
Much of this beauty comes from the more sophisticated new album, which shows off both Apple’s growth as a songwriter and acrobatic vocal skills. On the jazzy “Left Alone,” her vibrato was in overdrive on the line “I don’t cry when I’m sad anymore, no, no,” while asking a question that might hit home to many: “How can I ask anyone to love me/When all I do is beg to be left alone?” The schizophrenic “Every Single Night” finds Fiona switching from fairy-dust feminine verses to a hellcat shouting out an aggressive tribal chant. And on the cathartic “Daredevil” she confesses, “I don’t feel anything until I smash it up,” before picking up a couple of mallets to viciously pound on a floor tom-tom along with the beat.
Apple’s choice to end this enchanted evening, an obscure but inspired cover of the Conway Twitty country torch song “It’s Only Make Believe,” added to her emotional mystique, with the line, “My only prayer is that someday you’ll care for me.” Pat Benatar might have sung “Love Is a Battlefield,” but no one ever expressed that sentiment quite like Fiona Apple.