Even for a show at the Ryman, the assortment of people that filled the old church to see Fiona Apple on Friday the 13th was surprising — made up of everyone from tiny, femi-fist-pumping punks to collared-shirt-big-boot dudes to every chick in Nashville who owns a pair of Dr. Martens. When Apple made her way onstage, the girl next to The Spin whispered, “Ugh, she’s soooo skinny,” as everyone else completely and totally lost their '90s-lovin’ shit. Apple's red lips were visible from the balcony as she childishly tiptoed onto the stage and burst into “Fast as You Can” from When the Pawn … while gyrating and beating her leg with a metal baton.
When The Spin arrived, opener Blake Mills — also Apple’s guitarist — was a couple songs in and sounding decent, but the hustle and bustle of the room made it apparent that everyone was waiting for the lady of the hour. Mills is an exceptional guitarist, but came off shy during his own set. Until, that is, his cover of Santo and Johnny's classic “Sleepwalk," when he referenced the number's use in La Bamba with a cry of “RITTCHIIEE!” at tune's end. The lull between sets lasted a little longer than normal, but after waiting for a beer, no time at all passed before Apple was onstage.
Just when The Spin thought the crowd couldn’t get any more bizarre, an usher cleared some seats, allowing Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban to sit a few feet away with a small group of rowdy young ladies. So long as we obscured our vision with a strategically positioned beer, Urban semi-headbanging to “Sleep To Dream,” which came mid-set, didn’t take anything away from the show. The gloomy and ruminating “Shadowboxer” cut through the room, Apple’s distinctive vibrato sending the crowd into shrieks, her harsh, primeval moans falling over the audience like a sweater that probably shouldn't be worn in the summer — a little heavy and overwhelming, but it fits in all the right ways.
Apple moved unpredictably from her piano bench to the microphone, prancing like a deer in and out of headlights. She covered her face during “Extraordinary Machine” and twitched, falling to her knees, then jumping up and running over to beat on a floor tom during “Daredevil” from her latest, The Idler Wheel... Though there was no lack of energy in Apple's set, there were peaks and troughs, allowing for her to get wild for a song or two and then bring it down for a breather.
Somewhere around mid-set, The Spin had a flashback to the sitting-standing debacle we encountered when we saw Explosions in the Sky at the Ryman. Stand up. Shout down. Stand up. Shout down. Honestly, who gives a fuck if you can’t see because someone is into it and wants to stand? Most people paid to hear music, and certainly not to hear someone scream over the music at other patrons. We know she’s gorgeous and you were waiting for her to lock eyes with you (we were all thinking that, right?), but let’s keep things in perspective.
Wearing a crimson, glittered dress with a high slit up the side under a tiny tank top, Apple bent, twisted and contorted her body in a possessed but magnificent fashion — some folks cringed, others were delighted. On the way out, The Spin watched a kid with a popped collar (we know, we thought they didn’t exist anymore either) imitate Apple while telling his buds that he knew she danced, “but that was just weird.” That girl could writhe on the floor all day and not open her mouth to sing and we would watch, but add her soulful grunts, growls and howls, and we can assure you it’s less weird than a dude who shows up to a Fiona Apple show and expects to see anything less than provocative.
And damn, did she writhe, jump, dance and squirm. It appeared as if her eccentric, sexual energy crawled offstage and up the pant leg of everyone in the crowd — couples licked one another’s necks and rubbed each other’s backs like they were pre-gaming for an Eyes Wide Shut party. Seriously though, had Apple played a few more songs, an all-out orgy may have defiled The Mother Church. As she pounded out chords on her piano during “Not About Love,” she snarled and stared wide-eyed toward the ceiling, singing, “This is not about love, 'cause I am not in love / In fact I can't stop falling out.” The muscles in her thin arms bulged, her head falling back and forth as though possessed, pushing her collar bone out to show the veins in her neck.
When Apple finally busted out “Criminal” near the end of her set — something of her “Free Bird,” if we may say — she almost appeared to sing it out of respect for the crowd, but with an ostensible disdain for performing it. It was the only song in the set that felt dry and rushed. Admittedly, The Spin wasn’t displeased when Apple spoke after “Criminal” and said, “OK, let’s pretend two minutes went by, you all clapped and I’m back.” The “encore” was a sad, striking cover of Conway Twitty‘s “It’s Only Make Believe." A little anticlimactic, but pleasing nonetheless.