It takes a lot to stand out at SXSW, where any given night offers roughly 8,621 bands to see and 367 food trucks at which to refuel between sets. But a Fiona Apple show is a draw in any context. Until last night in Austin, Apple hadn't performed in five years outside of her homebase of Los Angeles, where the singer-songwriter joins her musician friends onstage every so often at the tiny Largo nightclub. Last November, she played with the composer Jon Brion and hinted that new material was in limbo, saying, "I can't remember any of my new songs because they've been done for a fucking year."
Apple's first LP in seven years is now slated for release in June (the elaborately titled The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do), and she's engaging in a brief tour that kicked off with a pair of appearances at SXSW, starting with an NPR-hosted showcase at Stubb's on Wednesday.
The much-ballyhooed performance all but guaranteed that a throng of festival-goers would be streaming into the venue by the time doors opened at seven. At about dusk, Apple took the stage and opened with "Fast As You Can," from her 1999 album, When the Pawn...; for those who have seen her at Largo, the slightly muddled sound and breadth of the crowd was overwhelming at times. It was overwhelming for Apple, too. At one point, she yelled at the audience, "You're not real." But the exictement for her new material outweighed logistical issues, and Apple soon settled in to a groove. She played three new tunes – "Valentine," "Every Single Night," and the sensual "Anything We Want," where she played percussion and sang ruefully, "I kept touching my neck to guide your eye to where I wanted you to kiss me when we find some time alone." Given Apple's penchant for intricate arrangements, the songs felt remarkably straightforward.
As for old fan favorites, there were several highlights, from "Criminal" and "Carrion" to "Sleep To Dream" and "Extraordinary Machine." But this show was all about the promise of what's to come, and Apple's performance only heightened the anticipation.