Five quick thoughts on Fiona Apple's show at the Palace Theatre on Sunday night, which now stands as the frontrunner for concert of the year:
(1) Many an artist has tried to project an image of frailty, wild unpredictability or any of the other manic forms Apple's unfiltered expression manifested Sunday night. But there's a clear difference between play-acting and what transpired at the Palace. I've never placed that much value on authenticity from musicians; battles about who's realer seem like a waste of time to me, whether it's rappers or folk singers in the ring, especially since everyone from Bob Dylan to Rick Ross has proven that a musician can adopt a persona and run with it in immensely compelling ways. I'm more interested in being inspired, entertained or moved than making sure I'm getting somebody's subjective ideal of "the genuine article." But after witnessing a performance by someone so truly unguarded, I'm reminded that there is something deeply special about a performer who holds nothing back, particularly when that performer is a creative genius. Apple presented herself with minimal pomp at the Palace — dressed like a bag lady, discomfitingly skinny, continually messing with the collection of personal effects atop her piano between songs — and as she poured herself into the music, she was impossible to dismiss.
(2) Her voice, in particular, was as unchained and compelling as on 2012's rhapsodic comeback album "The Idler Wheel..." The unsettling intensity of her vocal takes on songs like "Daredevil" and "Anything We Want" transferred to the live setting, even seeping into Apple's older material. The repeated howls of "You're all I need!" that punctuated 1999's "On the Bound" were one part Etta James, one part Serj Tankian; apparently, harrowing convulsions and lunatic whispers are just part of how she sings now. Again, this could be off-putting in the hands of a less masterful performer, but when Apple pours her guts out, there's spine-tingling humanity in the splatter. She put the self-absorbed, throat-shredding emo singers of the past two decades to shame.
(3) The fearlessness played out most strikingly in the sheer physicality of Apple's performance. She spent most of the set standing at a microphone at center stage, and while my pre-conceived idea of a Fiona Apple concert involved Apple perched at her piano all night, I didn't mind the change of pace. During one song, she clutched and rended her scarf until I wondered how it stayed in one piece. Numerous times her knees twisted inward and flayed wildly until she was hopping on one leg. When she did sit down at the piano, she leaned all the way back, lost in her band's extraordinary machinations. The sight of Apple backed up against her piano, writhing and stomping and leering while watching guitarist Blake Mills cut loose, was something like an animalistic mating ritual.
(4) Speaking of Mills, he was a monster with many modes. Had Apple not been such a commanding presence, he could have easily stolen the show. In particular, his Sly Stone gutter funk breakdown on "Sleep To Dream" was mind-blowingly dank. The band backing Apple all night was actually his band, and missing their opening set performing Mills' music was just about the only disappointment on an otherwise incredible night.
(5) That widespread satisfaction extended to Apple's setlist, which touched on all four of her LPs and served as a reminder that she didn't suddenly stumble into greatness circa 2012. She's been one of the most rewarding songwriters of her generation since debuting as a teen with 1996's "Tidal." The material was so uniformly strong Sunday that that album's signature single, "Criminal" — the one that begins, "I've been a bad, bad girl" — didn't make the cut, and I didn't miss it for a second. A far better calling card for Apple was this year's instant classic "Every Single Night," whose vacillations between Disney princess jazz odyssey and primitive war cry succintly summed up her considerable appeal. And there could be no complaining on a night when Apple covered Conway Twitty's gorgeous unrequited love ballad "It's Only Make Believe" as her grand finale. As if bearing witness to Apple's own songwriting accomplishments wasn't dumbfounding enough, watching her reshape decades-old heartache in her own image was one of those hold-your-breath moments I'm going to treasure for a long time.