It's hard to say who was more nervous at the Orpheum Theatre on Monday night: Reclusive songwriting heroine Fiona Apple, who has a famously tempestuous, teetering relationship with the stage and is fresh off a six-year hiatus from performing; or her fans, who didn't want to make any sudden moves or shout the wrong kind of "I love you" and throw the singer off her game.
That tenuous, uncomfortable vibe lingered through "Fast as You Can" and "On the Bound," the first two songs of the nearly sold-out, 90-minute performance. But then it was Apple herself who uncharacteristically broke the ice. Talking before the third song, the 1996 MTV hit "Shadowboxer," the 34-year-old Los Angeles howler made light of her new look and the way she held her head while seated at the piano.
"I tied my glasses to my face so the sweat didn't make them fall off like last time," she said in a rapid, breathless tone that sounded spastic in a nerdy way, not a mental-breakdown sort of way. "I'm not trying to look cool," she added, quite unnecessarily.
Things were completely cool after that. Apple slid into a gracefully manic version of "Shadowboxer," during which her voice rose from low-purring cat to a bellowing grizzly bear. From there, the show itself never slipped, and was often a real stunner.
One clear factor in Apple's stability this time around: her band. Drummer Amy Wood and former Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg followed Apple's jittery, jazz-rock rhythmic style to a T. Guitarist Blake Mills -- of late from Lucinda Williams' band -- opened the show with a light, twangy country-rock set of his own songs but then did a 180-degree turn to deliver the frantic interludes in such Apple songs as "Carrion" and the ultra-tense teeth-gnasher "Trymps (The Sick in the Head Song)."
Apple herself was still very much a burning ball of nerves, but she rolled along perfectly with her songs' bumpy, victim-vs.-victor themes. The way she kicked the stage during "Extraordinary Machine" reflected the torturous lyrics (i.e., "I'm good at being uncomfortable"). In "Get Gone," another clear highlight along with "Shadowboxer," she sat at the edge of her stool in pounce position looking ready to flip over her baby grand at any moment. And with her newly buff arms, she maybe could have done it.
Surprisingly, she only played four songs off her new album, "The Idler Wheel..." (the shorthand version of its poem-length title). A fascinating albeit challenging listen, some of the new songs might simply be hard to pull off live. She worked wonders with those four, though, especially the more simplistic but powerful piano ballad "Werewolf."
Before the moody new single "Every Single Night," she threw off her glasses, and looked straight out into the crowd as she sputtered, "Look at, look at, look at, look at me!" Somewhere during the concert, Apple also seemed to shed a lot of baggage. As only many of the best songwriters can do.
See Apple's set list at startribune.com/artcetera
Chris Riemenschneider 612-673-4658 Twitter: @ChrisRstrib