CLEARWATER — Fiona Apple sings like a soul-kissed banshee, and dances like a broken ballerina, and pounds her piano like a butterfly with a grudge. But for all her talents, a show by the tortured 35-year-old isn't complete without a loopy, rambling rant.
And 1,307 mostly female fans got just that straight out of the gate Saturday, when Apple prefaced her set at Ruth Eckerd Hall by sitting cross-legged at the front of the stage — accompanied by a friend and a cardboard dog, no less — and venting about gossip blogger Perez Hilton for a solid 10 bizarro minutes.
"I'm not going to talk about that whole … thing," she said at first, referencing a recent drug arrest in Texas. Then — after giggling and frowning and hunching over like a recluse — she took aim at Hilton, who has been critical of her lifestyle and looks: "I don't have to hear that I'm 90 years old just because I didn't have a facelift since the last time you saw me. Stop bullying people because you were bullied. Please stop hurting my feelings."
It was then time to eviscerate other men in her life, as her four-piece band rocket-launched into opening number Fast as You Can, a resounding example of how this petite person can make such an awesome yawping racket, acid jazz, heartbreak rock and ragtime roll melding into an avalanche of noise. Apple is issue-laden for sure, and she's often her own worst enemy. But she's also one of the most inventive, mesmerizing artists of the past 20 years, demons and all.
She demands exceptional talent from her band as well, especially guitarist (and opening act) Blake Mills, who merges slide ooze with Hendrixian eruption and Mike Bloomfield fluidity. If you're a guitar wonk, keep an eye out for this guy. He matched her wild vocal turns (On the Bound, Shadowboxer) with wicked, grindy flourishes of his own.
Apple is touring behind new LP The Idler Wheel..., which is just her fourth album in 16 years. Like all her efforts, it's intensely personal about the men in her life, but she doesn't reflect with a whisper and a moan. Periphery featured fluttery notes like Snow White on a helium binge, and Every Single Night had a hook like a lovelorn Apache battle cry.
"What does it say about me that I already feel bad about being mean to Perez Hilton?" she chuckled in the middle of her 90-minute set. She then played the puckish Paper Bag from 1999's When the Pawn..., during which she did her pouty little-girl twist, complete with wobbly spins and stomps of her tiny feet.
Apple was at once defiant and vulnerable, angry and accepting. "Stop calling me frail," she said after new song Daredevil. "I'll beat the h--- out of you guys!"
Maybe so. But at the end of brushstroked torch song I Know, which was almost too intimate, too pained in its delivery, she paused for an unsettling amount of time. You weren't sure if she were laughing or crying or both. It was so crystalline, so eerie.
She hid her face. She pounded her small foot onto a ratty stage rug. She bent one leg at the knee and held it there like a flamingo.
Finally, someone in the crowd shouted, "Are you okay?"
Someone else: "We love you, Fiona!"
More cries: "Keep singing!"
Eventually, after an excruciating wait, her band finished the slow, quiet heartbreaker.
This sad, sensational artist — a woman whose brilliance is no doubt tied to her restlessness — fidgeted with a cup on her piano.
She put her hair in a ponytail.
"Don't worry about me," Fiona Apple told the people who love her. "I'm telling you I'm fine."
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.