It’s difficult to know exactly how seriously to take New York singer Fiona Apple. The enigmatic 20-year-old evokes strong reactions from a mostly young, female audience that appears to relate to her willful, soul-baring songs of strength and self-exploration, all told without apology or hesitation.
But her live performances often come off awkward and with much less pathos than is found on her startling, platinum-certified debut album, “Tidal” (WORK/Sony), much of which she wrote well before her 18th birthday. And — the big question — does she have it in her, artistically, to make a worthy follow-up album? Can she justify and expand on the opportunities she’s been given?
At the sold-out Wiltern on Friday night, Apple’s voice showed the strain of nearly a year’s worth of touring. She also seemed aware of her onstage shortcomings, choosing to speak far less between songs than she usually does. “That was really bad,” she told the squealing crowd after one particularly out-of-the-blue comment about her musical inspiration.
Apple is most effective when alone onstage, removed from the distractions of her apt but unremarkable band. On “Never Is a Promise,” the highlight song of her album, she sat alone at her piano, under a single spotlight, and simply emoted: “You’ll never see, the courage I know I don’t know what to believe in, you don’t know who I am.” It was a stirring contrast to the bulk of the evening, which traded emotion for large-venue showmanship.
A moment of unadulterated delight came when Apple and her sister, Amber, sang “Happy Birthday” to their father, actor Brandon Maggert. The 80-minute perf also included Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo,” and closed with two other cover songs , including a sweet rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.”
Fiona Apple ends her touring for the year Dec. 17 in Hawaii, then resumes on the East Coast in February, just in time to see if Grammy judges think she justifies the hype.