Review: Fiona Apple at the Borgata

Fiona Apple brings her intensity to the SXSW crowd during the NPR showcase at Stubbs.

Fiona Apple is playing just a handful of small venue shows this month in advance of the June release of her first album in seven years. (It has a 23-word title, the first three of which are The Idler Wheel.) 

So there was electricity in the air for Saturday night’s sold-out performance at the cozy Music Box theater at the Borgata in Atlantic City – a space less than half the size of the casino hotel’s Event Center where marquee acts normally perform.

That wasn’t only due to the show’s rarity or relative intimacy, though. It’s also because every time Apple takes the stage, it’s a bit of an adventure. The husky voiced, palpably neurotic, piano pounding 34 year old waif is such a bundle of intensity that the word performance doesn’t seem apt. There’s nothing pat about what she does.

On Saturday, Apple came on stage wearing a black ankle-length sleeveless dress, and with a purple scarf around her neck, did a little bouncing, jittery dance. Then she leapt into “Fast As You Can,” from her 1999 album When The Pawn…, whose full title has more words that The Idler Wheel.

For that song and most of her 12 song set, Apple stood in front of her sharp, jazzy, satisfyingly noisy four piece band, stage center at the mic, which she sometimes quite literally wrestled with.

On one new song, “Anything We Want,” she banged on a percussion instrument made out of contorted metal pipe. She also spent some time seated at her candlelit piano, as on the also new “Valentine,” which initially seemed to be a straightforward lovelorn ballad, and then, predictably, turned into something more unpredictable than that.

Exerting her free will to deliberately act in an irrational manner, like the heroine of a Dostoyevsky novel, has long been a favored theme of Apple’s. “I’m gonna make a mistake,” she sang in a minor key banger from When The Pawn… “I’m gonna do it on purpose.” 

That idea was carried forward in the chipper, affirmative “Extraordinary Machine” which started out in her upper range before moving into growling, gravelly territory. “I’m good at being uncomfortable,” she sang. “So I can’t stop changing all the time.”

She followed that with a new song called “Every Single Night,” which stretched out the last word for emphasis in the line, “Every single night is a fight with my brain.”  That made it sound like being Fiona Apple is no picnic, but a closer listen revealed that, to her, it may not be so tortuous. “Every single night is … alright,” she sang the second time through, then finished the song with a simple plea, that comes with a cost: "I just want to feel everything."

Apple has struggled with her nerves on previous tour stops, even bucking herself up at a show in Austin, Texas by telling the crowd, “You’re imaginary. You’re not real.” Things went smoothly by her standards at the Borgata, though, and she added an extra treat: A lush version of the oft-covered Conway Twitty hit “It‘s Only Make Believe,” in which she made sure that every heartbroken syllable in the melodramatic ode to self-deception rang true.

Conor Kelley took the photo of Apple at the piano at Stubb's in Austin, Texas earlier this month.

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