Fiona Apple was at her most intense Friday night at the Palace Theatre, turning in a powerhouse of a show with her four-piece band before a packed house.
The alternative pop singer, best known for her ‘90s hit “Criminal” (which she didn’t play — perhaps the evening’s only disappointment), has a reputation for stage fright. Indeed, she didn’t do much talking to the crowd, but that was the only instance where any stage fright showed up. Over the course of her 90-minute set, she let the songs do the talking, and they spoke loudly.
Apple pushed the boundaries of her voice throughout the evening, hitting dizzying high-pitch falsettos, guttural growls and smoky sustained crooning, often within the space of a few bars.
Apple and her band came out firing on both barrels, immediately launching into winding rocker “Fast as You Can,” from her 1999 sophomore album, “When the Pawn ...”. Her vocals started out a bit low in the mix, but by the second number they were comfortably situated, and by “Shadowboxer,” Apple was belting out a storm, strafing the bluesy changes with snarling fury. The crowd was particularly rabid during the evening, cheering for every song, new and old.
Speaking of new songs, she played plenty from her first album in seven years, the recently-released “The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do” (yes, that’s the full title, recalling the impossibly long title she gave her second album). “Anything We Want” settled on an unusual groove that eventually petered out in a manner reminiscent of a car running out of gas, as Apple sang in a jazzy croon over the unusual structure. “Werewolf” was another new highlight, perfectly showcasing the band’s subtle dynamics.
Her band, featuring lead guitarist Blake Mills, bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Amy Wood and keyboardist Patrick Warren, gave these songs muscle and also matched Apple for intensity. Mills in particular deserves mention for his searing leads — set centerpiece “Sleep to Dream” featured some of his finest playing of the evening on a ripping extended solo. As he played, Apple hung all over her keyboard, grinding and sliding up the side in an exaggerated dance. Later on, during “Tymps (The Sick in the Head Song),” the two re-enacted this display to equally powerful results.
As the set climaxed, Apple pushed her vocals harder and harder — sounding as if she was about to hit the breaking point on “Every Single Night” and “Daredevil,” then dialing back a bit for “Not About Love” but not losing any of her ferocity. The song’s push-pull dynamic, with exaggerated stops and starts, raised the energy level in the crowd to a fever pitch. Her cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” ended the evening on a high note, although there was some disappointment about the lack of an encore.
Mills opened with a likable set of alternative country rockers, as audience members slowly filled the venue. The rest of the band also slowly filled the stage — first Steinberg came up, adding stand-up bass to “Curable Disease” and “It’ll All Work Out” as Mills showed off his chops on slide guitar. Then Wood and Warren hit the stage, providing a steady groove on a cover of Bobby Charles’ “I Hope” and the tongue-in-cheek rocker “Don’t Tell Your Friends About Me.”
Best of all was a version of “Sleepwalk,” the instrumental song that closes out the film “La Bamba,” with Mills once again providing fiery slide leads as the crowd cheered.