A preamble

I found out that Fiona Apple was coming to my town almost by accident after seeing an ad online. I knew she had an album coming out a few months later but I hadn't considered the possibility that she might tour. She rarely tours. A reviewer of Tuesday night's concert in Montreal refers to her as a "full-time hermit," and who can blame him for the description? In my 15 years of fandom, I had never known her to travel anywhere near where I was. There were always a few tour dates listed on her website, mostly scattered throughout the U.S., but I'd mostly given up hope of ever seeing her live years ago.

It should go without saying that once I had the details, I rabidly attempted to buy tickets online minutes after they went on sale. That the concert was on a Wednesday evening and I normally work evenings was of little consequence. I would take a vacation day. I would switch shifts with someone. I'd been waiting for this since I was 12. Nothing was going to get in my way. I found myself working days instead of evenings and hopped a bus to the venue after work. Just about everyone else on the bus was also attending this concert. I was sitting near a group of three women in their early twenties. From their conversation I gleaned that they'd been fans since Extraordinary Machine.

"Can you believe we've waited seven years for this?" one said, and I suddenly felt old -- not in terms of my age but in the sense that this music had been part of my life for more than half of it. Then they talked about hearing Tidal and marvelling at how "she sounded so young" on it. I thought back to getting Tidal, released when Fiona Apple was 18, for my 12th birthday. She never sounded young to me.

It occurred to me then that for most of the time I'd been listening to Fiona Apple, I was the only person I knew who did. After her second and third albums came out some friends of mine got into her, but only after I'd introduced them to her music. I wondered about what it would have been like to have grown up when she was more of an established, bigger deal.

As I was waiting in line outside the venue, I took stock of the people I was waiting with. The median age of the crowd seemed to be about 30, though a lot of people seemed to be in their early twenties. I'd feel comfortable placing others in their fifties, given that they reminded me a bit of my parents. The male-female ratio was probably about 2:3.

Waiting for something for 15 years, even if you don't necessarily expect it to ever happen, increases the possibility that it will be a letdown when it happens.

This was unequivocally not a letdown.

The show

We were let inside at 7 p.m., and the opening act — guitarist Blake Mills, who was there as part of the backing band — went on at 8. He played four or five songs, a few of them with the bassist and percussionist from the band, and was done by 8:35. He was very good. His music, based on the sampling of what I assume were original songs (plus a cover of "Sleepwalk"), is worth checking out.

Fiona and her five-piece ensemble hit the stage about 25 minutes later. (She is tiny! I bring that up for no other reason than to marvel at just how big her voice is.) She sang "Fast As You Can," running from the middle of the stage to where her piano was set up on the left-hand side. She stayed at the piano for "On the Bound" and "Shadowboxer," then spent most of the rest of the evening (apart from "Not About Love" and "Get Gone," which someone standing near me greeted with the exclamation "I had this song on repeat a lot.") singing in the centre. 

The woman is all business. She didn't engage in banter between songs, nor did she introduce songs in advance or single out members of her band. One review of the concert suggested that the "lack of interaction" was something that needed to be "made up for" (and it was the view of the reviewer that the rest of the performance did "make up" for it). My contention would be that everyone in attendance had clearly been a fan since at least Extraordinary Machine — that is to say that I doubt anyone heard The Idler Wheel... when it was released a few weeks ago and then decided to go to this concert. People had been waiting years for this.

If Fiona Apple wanted to spend her time with us singing instead of talking, she'd get no argument from me.

It was clear, besides that, that this wasn't a matter of her being disinterested; at no point did she seem as though she didn't want to be there. There were moments when I wondered whether the crowd, which numbered in the hundreds if not at least a thousand (it was hard to tell from my vantage point), was almost superfluous. Ninety minutes of full-throated singing and dancing around the stage never seemed to fatigue her, and I got the sense that she might have been perfectly happy to have done it even had no one shown up.

And she danced a lot.

Some reviewers have used the word "possessed" to describe her on-stage movements, and during her more involved dancing it was easy to see why they'd drawn that comparison. She planted herself on the floor and bopped around a bit as though she were watching the concert from a chair at points during "Sleep to Dream." I initially would have described this as something of an antic until I realized that this was the extended instrumental break, and that she was really just getting out of the way so her band could become the focus. And even after she flailed around during those songs, she was perfectly still in time for the next, standing at the microphone with her hands behind her back like a child contestant at a spelling bee.

The band was great. The show's staging and lighting was designed in a way that the band was featured prominently, and rightly so. With two percussionists, a bassist, a keyboardist and Mills, the opener, on guitar, the concert could easily have been billed as "Fiona Apple and her Five-Piece Band." It was a bit of a shame that she didn't introduce the band, but that would have cut into performance time. She crammed 16 of her own songs, plus an encore cover, into 90 minutes and it never felt rushed. The only real pauses between songs were breaks short enough for her to pound back bottles of water sitting atop her piano. (As an aside, she was wearing a purple skirt and white sleeveless tanktop and had her hair tied up. The venue was air conditioned but given the lighting she must have been warm. It felt like 43 degrees Celsius -- 109 Fahrenheit -- that evening. That is hot for this part of Canada).

I was a little surprised by the diversity of the setlist. I hadn't expected three songs from Tidal, an album that had been released almost exactly 16 years earlier. I was also not expecting only four songs from her latest release, which she was ostensibly there to promote. The previously linked review from the Montreal concert noted that, given the infrequency of her tours, the setlist seemed to be a nod to the fact that people had been waiting for years to see her live. Every song was instantly recognized and well received; the people there had not decided to see Fiona Apple on a whim. These were fans, and it showed.

What was interesting was hearing the songs from Tidal sounding every bit as fresh as they did when they were first released 16 years ago. As the women on the bus noted, she doesn't sound like she did on Tidal anymore. She did sound younger, but she also seemed to be putting more of herself into her singing on each subsequent album. In writing up her latest album, I noted that she's now singing her heart out. I think the description holds. She was singing on Tidal, to be sure, but last night she sang "Sleep to Dream" and "Shadowboxer" and "Criminal" like her life depended on it. What's more, she sang them like she means them more now than she did at the time.

It made me hope she considers revisiting the album, as Alanis Morissette did when she re-recorded Jagged Little Pill.

And that voice. My God, that voice.

If there was ever any doubt that there is no digital trickery on any of her albums, it is gone. That is how she sounds. She sounds as phenomenal after singing her heart out for 90 minutes as she does when she first opens her mouth. She really can switch from quiet and lilting to loud and ferocious within seconds. She can move from her low register to the high notes whenever she feels like it.

There was not a single wrong note all evening. Her one flub came during "Extraordinary Machine," when instead of "won't go slow so as not to focus and I notice" she sang "notice" twice. And she sort of smiled to herself, seemingly knowing that a room full of devoted fans had, in fact, noticed (but didn't really mind).

For the most part, the arrangements were the same as those on her albums. Some songs -- "Sleep to Dream" and "Criminal" -- were extended to prominently feature the band. "Carrion" and "I Know" took on a more bluesy bent than the originals, and this worked well. Some of the arrangements required sampling from the albums themselves, such as the opening drum portion of "Paper Bag" and the strings of "Extraordinary Machine."

It's hard to pick a standout because the evening flowed together effortlessly. I'm going to remember that performance of "Not About Love" for a long, long time. It was one of the handful of songs she sang from the piano, and it was more ferocious and intense than the album version. "Sleep to Dream," of all songs, got one of the biggest crowd reactions. It was also clear that the crowd had already absorbed her recent release, knowing the words to the four new songs she played.

If I had to quibble with the setlist, I would say I was hoping to hear "O' Sailor." But I have no complaints.

She finished her real set with "Criminal," which seemed to take people by surprise. I've always wondered how artists feel about their biggest, most-played songs after they move beyond that stage in their careers, but she put everything she had into it. (I don't know whether this will stay up for long — it's not mine — but you can see for yourself.)

Part of her obvious efforts to not waste time -- hers or ours -- came at the end, when she launched straight into the encore after her set. After "Criminal" she said something I didn't catch (though it got a laugh and applause), then explained that the next song was the encore. She launched into a cover of "It's Only Make Believe" by Conway Twitty, something I knew was coming based on previous reviews. The song title didn't ring any bells for me but I realized 30 seconds in that I'd heard it before. What an ending.

When it was over, she smiled and waved and seemed genuinely moved that people had come to hear her sing. She nearly walked off the stage the wrong way before a stagehand pointed her in the right direction. As she crossed the stage to get to the exit, she waved and beamed again. And then she was gone.

On my way out of the venue, some people behind me were discussing the evening. They noted, as I have here, that she didn't waste any time, that she delivered as much music as she could and that she seemed to be having fun. One of them used the term "religious experience." And I smiled, because the only word I'd been able to come up with was immaculate.

Fiona Apple recently announced more tour dates. If you like her music and you can see her, go.

Set list

  1. Fast As You Can
  2. On the Bound
  3. Shadowboxer
  4. Paper Bag
  5. Anything We Want
  6. Get Gone
  7. Sleep to Dream
  8. Extraordinary Machine
  9. Werewolf
  10. Tymps (the Sick in the Head Song)
  11. Daredevil
  12. I Know
  13. Every Single Night
  14. Not About Love
  15. Carrion
  16. Criminal
  17. It's Only Make Believe (encore)

Some other reviews

Fiona Apple lets her music do the talking, National Post
Fiona Apple - Sound Academy, Toronto, ON, July 4, Exclaim
Fiona Apple broods through the heat, Now
Fiona Apple delivers wave of emotions, Toronto Sun

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