One of the most highly anticipated events of the first full day of Austin’s SXSW Music Festival was Fiona Apple’s return to the stage to preview her forthcoming album — her first since 2005′s critically acclaimed “Extraordinary Machine.” The new album is slated for a June release on Epic Records, and its title is a whopping 23 words long: “The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do” (unusual capitalization intended). Judging from her performance tonight, she still has plenty to say.Apple revealed a bit of what’s in store with the new album, previewing a handful of new tunes during her hourlong set at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s BBQ. The sizable outdoor venue was packed to capacity, with people lined up around the block waiting to get in. Apple’s charisma and sheer passion for what she does was palpable from the moment she stepped onto the stage. Backed by a four-piece band, she looked hungry and determined — eager to prove to the influential music industry crowd that she’s back with a vengeance. She kicked off with “Fast as You Can,” pounding on the piano and delivering throaty screams when the pain-soaked lyrics required it. Despite her obvious passion, her voice seemed shaky at times, and Apple relied on vibrato on nearly every song, which served to weaken and diminish the powerful effect of her winning voice that a clear, true delivery might have rendered. Looking waifish in red and black, Apple offered very little in the way of stage banter except to confess that she’d forgotten whether she’d sung a verse once or twice — perhaps the result of nerves — and needed to practice a bit more for her first set of major tour dates in quite a while. She and her band offered up some impressive improvisations, jamming now and again and adding unexpected flourishes to a few familiar tunes. New songs including the melodic “Every Single Night” and “Anything We Want” seethed with raw emotion, but the biggest cheers were reserved for crowd-pleasers “Extraordinary Machine” and set-closer “Criminal.” Apple is slated to hit the road for an eight-date tour beginning in Chicago on Sunday.
Stubb's BBQ; 2,200 capacity; free
Presented by NPR. Reviewed March 14, 2012