Fiona Apple does not make BBQ music. It's not really art designed for a fiesta, not really "music festival" material -- whatever that is. She makes living room and/or bedroom music, perfect for theaters but not necessarily for backyard gravel pits.
"You're imaginary, you're not real," she said between songs at Austin BBQ joint Stubb's as part of NPR Music's South by Southwest showcase, her first live performance in advance of her new album, "The Idler Wheel," and one of a few shows she's doing in advance of its summer release. Apple seemed to be wishing us away so that she could concentrate -- and the more she wished, the more urgent her delivery became. She pushed her contralto to the edge, where her voice went gruff and crackled.
But the thousands that packed the backyard bowl were indeed real, and comprised a lot of people who knew all the words to all the songs from her scant output over the last 15 years. Recall that when Apple rose, she was just 19 years old, but unlike artists who milk their success with annual albums and tours, she's released just three records, with a fourth on the way. And many people have internalized those songs.
FULL COVERAGE: South by Southwest
Apple, now 34, looked a little stressed but not ridiculously so. She appeared much more frazzled in late November, when she appeared during one of Jon Brion's regular gigs at Largo in Los Angeles. There, after Brion performed a few of his own songs, Apple seemed distracted and a little scattered, though her voice was in fine form as she tossed out a few jazz standards.
She was much more put together at Stubb's, where she played a combination of old and new songs, including a searing take on "On the Bound," her Brechtian dirge, which she offered on grand piano (yes, there was a grand piano at a BBQ). "Paper Bag," which was given new life last year in "Bridesmaids," was offered with those beautiful snare drum runs intact.
The few new songs were of a part with the rest of her work: an odd but effective combination of rock, jazz, soul and blues that touched on all without committing to any. Like the best of her work, her lyrical drama was tempered with a certain swing and swagger that belies the message that, in Apple's words during "Paper Bag," "you know I'm a mess."
She wasn't a mess at Stubb's, even if she seemed like she couldn't wait to get off the stage. Not because of rudeness, though -- but because she seems so much more at home when we in the crowd remain imaginary, when the reality isn't staring right at her in the form of a bunch of people she doesn't know who really, really like her music and lyrics a lot.
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-- Randall Roberts reporting from Austin, Texas
Photo: Fiona Apple performs at the NPR showcase during the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas on Wednesday, March 14, 2012. Credit: Jack Plunkett / Associated Press