Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Fiona Apple Is an Extraordinary Machine

Fiona Apple at The Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ, October 15th, 2012

Both of my daughters were born in Red Bank, NJ.  They're quick to point that out at any mention of the town.  They also know that they share that birthplace with William "Count" Basie.  The kids have no idea who that is, but they know that they've performed a few dance recitals and seen several musicals and ballets at the Red Bank theater that bears his name.

When I was a kid, the place was known as The Monmouth Arts Center.  Right around the time I went to high school, I think, it got its current name.  It's a really nice vaudeville-era theater with a capacity of around 1500.  In the last five or ten years, restoration projects have resulted in new, historically accurate seating as well as restoration to the theater's paint job.

The Count Basie hosts lots of performances by the New Jersey and Monmouth County Orchestras.  There are a few musical productions a year by Red Bank's Phoenix Productions (High School Musical, Legally Blonde, etc.).  Several national acts per year move through Red Bank on their way to and from New York City.  I've seen B.B. King, George Carlin, and Louis CK there over the years.  Last Friday, I noticed that Fiona Apple would be playing The Basie.  The convenience of the show and the quality of Apple's latest album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, made it impossible for me to pass on this one.

Apparently, not everyone in the area felt the same way I did.  Granted, it was Monday night; but I was surprised to see the orchestra barely three-quarters full.  I'm not sure what the balcony looked like, but I'd expected a sold-out show.

As an opener, Apple's touring band took the stage one by one, fronted by her guitarist Blake Mills.  They played Mills's brand of mellow, country-tinged folk pop.  Mills is an excellent guitar player and used an interesting set of gutiars, from a Danelectro (a brand that originated in Red Bank, NJ) to several  that looked like he had cobbled them together from various Stratocaster and Telecaster parts.  They closed their set with a really great cover of "Sleepwalk."

Apple took the stage at around 9:15 and opened with "Fast As You Can" from 1999's When the Pawn...  Her angular, jittery movements gave the impression of an energetic bird on the stage -- a bird that could sing both booming lows and otherworldly highs.  She took to the piano for the next two songs, and did an excellent rendition of 1996's "Shadowboxer."  Even at 35, Apple is able to fill a song that she wrote as a teenager with soul and emotion.

The Idler Wheel... is Apple's most stripped down album to date.  It retains much of the jazz and Broadway influences of her earlier work.  The songs, though, are mostly Apple on piano accompanied by various forms of percussion (including, apparently, bottles being thrown down a flight of stairs).  The songs from that record, though, -- especially "Periphery," "Werewolf," and "Every Single Night" -- became something even more when accompanied by Apple's movements, commitment, and the full band.

Throughout the show, Apple urgently fiddled with her long hair, tying it in a bun, putting it into a ponytail, letting it flow freely.  She swilled water like she'd just come in from the desert.  There was a single moment other than her final "Thank you" when Apple acknowledged the audience. She approached the mic, panting, following an instrumental jam that saw her pounding the stage on all fours.  She started to say something about the disorientation of emerging from the ocean and just cut it off with, "F*ck it! Nobody ever knows what I'm talking about!"  The show lasted ninety minutes.  There was no encore.

Apple showed everything you would have expected last night:  her quirky, introverted personality, her commitment to her music, and her immense talent.  The Count Basie Theatre provided an excellent venue for her particular style -- much better than Terminal 5 in New York where she'll spend the next two evenings.  I only wish it had been sold out.


  1. I don't know if anyone else noticed but America Ferrera was sitting in the center section of the loge last night.

    1. Didn't see that. Wonder what she was doing in RB?