Fiona Apple at Bank of America Theatre

There’s a phenomena that occurs at times when in a situation that involves subjective opinion. I don’t know if it has name, but it’s a very real phenomena. It usually involves being surrounded by people who “get it,” while you struggle to figure out what everyone sees in what’s going on. The last time I felt this phenomena was with The Hangover, where everyone I encountered lauded it as one of the best comedies in years. Even my Dad (my, at the time, 65 year old Dad) shook his head in disappointment that I didn’t share in his enjoyment. That same feeling came back to me as I sat at the Bank of America theater watching Fiona Apple’s latest Chicago show. People all around me were cheering “I love you Fiona!!!”, “You’re the best Fiona!!”, while I struggled to understand what the fuss was all about.

In full disclosure, I am not a huge Fiona fan. This is purely based on not being exposed to her music enough, and not because I hold a particularly strong aversion to her sound. I was actually hoping that the show would turn me on to her, so I could understand what so many people see in her. I’ve been indulging in some introspection lately, and I was looking forward to some raw, visceral emotional reactions at the theater that night. Unfortunately, none of that was there, and I was left with an empty feeling that I just could not shake.

Perhaps I set myself up for disappointment by setting such lofty expectations from the get-go. Perhaps I was put in a bad mood when she came on stage over 30 minutes late. But I just didn’t ever establish a connection with Fiona in the way I had hoped.

The theme of the show seemed to be “Teach me how to be free,” which she and her drummer scrawled on a blackboard as the show began. This seemed apt, as nothing about Fiona felt free that night. There were rare occasions throughout where the Fiona I expected began to shine through, but those moments were few and far between. The image I have of her that evening is of an artist enshrouded in distress, separated from herself and, in some ways, reality. Not exactly the epitome of being free.

I took the time before the show to sit down a bit with The Idler Wheel so I could temper my expectations of what I would be seeing. One thing that stands out–and is magnified–through a pair of headphones is that her voice, and her presence, are a complete force of nature. Songs such as “Regret” are utterly overflowing with an emotion and authenticity that is hard to find in even the most prolific artists. The heart breaking reality is that this same visceral emotion just didn’t exist in her performance on stage.

It was a stark contrast to her partner on stage, Blake Mills. While I had never heard of Mills before, he was cordial, affectionate, and energetic. In no way did he command the presence that I expected from Apple, but the fact is, he didn’t need to. His engagement, and his quiet charm when interacting with us, along with his skilled guitar playing, is the exact formula that establishes a bond between the artist and the audience, so that one might overlook a few missteps. If you juxtapose this with Fiona, who spent much of the show standing in the middle of the stage, staring at the ground, tapping her neck with a pair of drumsticks, you’ll neatly summarize the disparity in the performance.

But again, maybe I don’t “get it.” Maybe this is Fiona, and maybe I had expectations of a show that she just does not put on. The overarching issue here is, Fiona didn’t feel accessible in her live performance. In most instances, when you truly love an artist, you have established a connection that is deeper than what the general audience member can appreciate, and that’s wonderful. I feel, quite strongly, that an artist should always be accessible because music is meant to be enjoyed by everyone, not just the ardent.

Fiona Apple’s talent is unquestionable, and her music deeply personal. Unfortunately, something joined her on stage the other night that prevented me from truly experiencing that deep connection. Something happened that night that prevented her from truly being free.

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