Walking into the Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley last Tuesday, it felt more like entering a lecture on music theory than a full-scale concert. The intimate venue, more commonly known for hosting fine arts performances and symposiums, was prepped for something very different on October 8th. The stage was packed with a drum set, stand up bass, piano, an eclectic array of guitars, various percussion instruments and one large, ambiguous treasure chest.
Photographers were lining the aisle ways of the orchestra and balcony sections, and seats were filling quickly with people audibly buzzing in anticipation. With expectations running high fueled by recent rumors and speculation, the audience came to a sudden hush as the theater lights dimmed. Fiona Apple and Blake Mills took the stage to truly perform “Anything They Want.”
“First things first,” Fiona came scampering onto the stage in a cyclone of discontent as she feverishly scribbled and erased words on a chalkboard in the backdrop. She continuously apologized and muttered while trying to get everything in order before she officially addressed the crowd. Blake Mills, on the other hand in near perfect inversion, casually walked over to his vast assortment of guitars, tuned his first choice for the evening and remained completely unaffected by the spectacle unveiling before him.
After finally achieving peace of mind enough to acknowledge the crowd (buzzing in anticipation), Apple took a very reluctant moment to set the record straight about her most recent outburst in Portland. She stated “she didn’t want to, but had to” further elaborate on comments she made regarding her continuous battle with an innately fiery temper and unwarranted liberties taken by the press.
When speaking, she seemed at times to be so uncomfortable that if physically possible, she would have leaped right out of her skin. Draped in a floor length silk slip and sporting an ill fitted bandana, she constantly adjusted the rag around her newly cropped hair — Apple eventually solicited the audience for a rubber band. At this point, Blake began to reel in Fiona in order to get the show started. What followed was a perfect combo of showmanship and grace — these two seemed like they had been touring together for years.
After publically clearing her mind with the help of coy coaxing efforts from Blake, the duo selected songs from each other’s catalogues. Duets included, both artists shared the spotlight in one of the most beautifully free form jam sessions fans could have hoped for. Switching the lead role every two to three songs, both musicians transferred between guiding songs and supporting the other with ease.
Setting the pace for the night, the drummer and stand-up bass players were impeccable. Beyond their incredible musical prowess, these two provided an unbiased perspective amongst the theatrics of the evening, and occasionally joined in on the fun as both main acts playfully duked it out as joint headliners.
Captivatingly distracted, Apple seemed ingrained in some kind of internal battle with her psyche most of the evening. She spastically fluttered about the stage, rummaged through her chest of percussion instruments, and communicated nearly indecipherable murmurs with Mills about the real-time set list choices. Mills, on the other hand, remained collectively calm throughout, keeping the show from derailing into emotionally dark places.
Watching the chemistry between the performers was in itself just as entertaining as hearing them perform. The two divergent personalities played off one another like a pair of siblings lovingly prodding each other to raise the bar. Mills jokingly commented on Apple’s erratic behavior as she pushed his buttons, all while exchanging laughter.
The musical selections covered a vast majority of material off each other’s most recent releases, along with a few throwbacks to appease the auditorium full of devoted fans. Fiona danced around vocal scales that ranged from gut wrenching bellows to glass shattering shrieks in a physical display of emotion that stunned the crowd into near silence. Spellbindingly beautiful, Apple looked as though she could tangibly feel the compositions running through her bloodstream. Her sentiment ranges from vehement aggression to utter submissiveness — she threw her entire being into every song she played.
Mills put on an equally impressive display of mind-blowing talent, transcending the space of Zellerbach Hall into a soundscape that was all his own. Mills took the crowd on an audio excursion that touched upon his various artistic influences and improvisational techniques. Mills rotated through an arsenal of axes, including danelectros, telecasters, hollow body Gibson’s, six string ukuleles and more. Apple remained on stage during much of Mills’ solo routine, writhing on a large marching band drum, occasionally beating it in dramatic fashion.
Every component of this evening was perfectly crafted to play out in a wonderfully successful manner. Fiona Apple and Blake Mills may be in the middle of what will be considered one of the most impacting tours of either of their careers. The audience got to see both artists in their most naturally raw state.
What more could an artist, or audience member, want out of a live music experience? Running out of time for an official encore, Apple and Mills eventually exited the stage to a standing ovation from the sold out Zellerbach Hall crowd.