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Apple's artistry is in her subtlety

March 07, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

"I'VE never done this kind of thing before in my life," Fiona Apple said Monday, introducing a song during her show at the Largo.

That's exactly the kind of thing the audience at the matchbox-size club was hoping for, a moment to memorably differentiate this benefit performance from a business-as-usual Fiona Apple concert.

The intimacy of the room and the mix of originals and standards in the set had already made it distinctive enough, but it turned out that what she had never done before was a call-and-response audience-participation number.

So there she was, the princess of sophisticated, raw-nerve confessional pop, belting out the theme from the kids' TV show "Gumby" and having the audience shout back "Gungi."

"Gungi" is the nickname of her production manager Gordon Paterson, whose battle with cancer prompted Apple to schedule two fundraising shows (the second one, also sold out, is Friday) at the Fairfax district club that's been a regular haunt of hers.

If her Gumby moment was a playful and slightly ridiculous diversion, the 90-minute set overall was weighted toward the sublime. And though its main aim was to help Paterson financially, the evening also made a statement about Apple's artistry.

Her shows in recent years have reached for such a large scale, culminating in last year's tour of arenas opening for Coldplay, that her distinguishing subtleties have tended to be obscured. Monday's performance was a radical reassertion of the nuanced writing and singing that give her music such chilling intimacy.

In the small, nearly silent room, Apple sometimes offered a lyric so softly that her listeners leaned forward like friends hanging on a revelation that would explain everything.

Even in these rarified moments, her voice always held its shape and phrased with percussive precision. Every time she concluded the intricate refrain of "Extraordinary Machine" -- "I make the most of it / I'm an extraordinary machine" -- it sounded like a string of fine, tiny porcelain beads.

Apple, who was accompanied for all but a couple of songs by longtime collaborator and Largo ringmaster Jon Brion on acoustic guitar, was a strikingly physical performer, reacting to moods and tempos with a body that flailed, stalked, swayed and twitched. Her vocals also ranged far from those understated passages, growling in primal scream mode on "To Your Love" and adopting a torch singer's croon on "Shadowboxer."

These and a few other originals shared the set with some vintage pop standards whose harmonic complexity and lyrical smarts have clearly inspired her own pop-cabaret style. Honoring their nature but bending them to her will, Apple and Brion made Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" a ragtimey romp and gave Frank Loesser's "On a Slow Boat to China" a gentle sway. "Crazy" (Willie Nelson's, not Gnarls Barkley's, though that might have been something to try), Irving Berlin's "All Alone" and "Blue Skies" and others helped fill out a panorama of pop history.

Apple might have looked a bit severe in her black, Japanese-style flower-print dress and with her hair tied back tightly, but the atmosphere grew increasingly loose as she and Brion were joined for much of the set by Heartbreakers pianist Benmont Tench and for a stretch by Sean and Sara Watkins of the bluegrass band Nickel Creek.

They all pitched in to the set's big release point, a roof-raising, hot-jazz take on Ella Fitzgerald's "When I Get Low I Get High," with Brion and Tench sharing the one piano. And the Watkins siblings helped Apple tap a strain of rootsy Americana: Singing high harmony on the 19th century murder ballad "Banks of the Ohio" is probably something she doesn't do very often either.

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