Silence can be a dangerous thing for Fiona Apple. That’s usually the time in her concerts when people yell nice things (“I love you!”) or mean things, as she experienced in Portland two weeks ago when an audience member suggested she looked sickly and another told her she was past her prime. Apple ordered both to leave the theater.
At the Bank of America Theater Tuesday, Apple encountered many of the former and none of the latter, which she said was her wish to keep making Chicago one of her favorite cities to perform. She also acknowledged the surprise benefits of being heckled: “That’s how I get publicity.”
If no one heckled in Chicago, it may have been because they were often dazed by Apple’s unique method of performing a show, or ticks that made her look unprepared at worst and, at best, just kind of daffy. The subject she has long staked her name on is obsessive love gone bad, and since 1996, she has proven to be uncompromising in how she has presented her natural gifts to the public: Uncomfortably raw.
In the beginning she kept that powerhouse voice muted, instead on songs like “Every Single Night” and “The First Taste,” choosing to swallow her words, giving the impression of disappearing. She also frequently picked up oddly shaped percussive instruments she used to keep rhythm on her neck and thighs but that made no sound at all.
Thankfully, the bill for the 90-minute, 16-song show was shared with Blake Mills, a Los Angeles session/touring musician (Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, Band of Horses, Dawes) and recent Apple collaborator, who performed many of his own songs as well as served as the evening’s most dynamic musician. (Also onstage was bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Amy Wood.) Far from a conventional guitarist, Blake bent notes slyly, crawled his fingers across strings to strike perfect accents, and interjected sonic textures and tones that provided an alluring contrast to Apple’s open-nerve energy.
He sang and Apple accompanied on piano or bass drum, and they often sang together. Here is where the evening stood up straight: Their duets, particularly the Mt. Egypt song “7,” were hauntingly beautiful as were her nuanced backing vocals to his songs, especially “It’ll All Work Out.”
As the show progressed, Apple came out of her shell, both as a vocalist and performer. Blake, Steinberg and Wood played their instruments so loosely that they might have fallen out of their hands at anytime. Their approach, providing big spaces, fit Apple who covered the wide range of her vocals; on “Regret,” she shouted with gut-wrenching power while also cramming the song down to a whisper.
The band moved downstage for a cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” which Mills dominated with his slide guitar. Remarkably, there was a lot of country in their version, and, compared to Twitty’s own, far more tears.