After navigating numerous traffic cones and ticket-scalping parking attendants, I could clearly see the gorgeous Mann Center — an outdoor stage nestled in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park — rising above like a wooded cathedral. In the huge pavilion, Fiona Apple was already merging her arrow-sharp voice with Nickel Creek’s Grammy-nominated Americana under a thin tarp roof awash in projected stars. The concert had been billed as “Nickel Creek with Fiona Apple”, but, before the show, many Apple fans must have imagined the headlining Nickel Creek to be a typo, convinced the well-known singer (who hasn’t played second fiddle for a long time) would actually take the lead. Instead, she joined the nouveau-bluegrass band as an (almost) equal, helping usher them out (until the implied reunion, of course) by collaborating on portions of their Farewell (For Now) Tour. Apple haunted the stage in a midnight-blue, robe-like dress that dropped from her wide swimmer’s shoulders. With her brown locks swinging in her face, she called to mind the faceless, long-haired avatar of so many Japanese horror films. But what was truly chilling to the bone was her flawless, crystal voice. Navigating the complex chutes and ladders of her own songs perfectly, she also managed to turn standards like Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Irving Berlin’s “All Alone” into smoky, nervy anthems of failed love and disappointment. Behind her, on banjo, fiddle, and stand-up bass, Nickel Creek created the sharp contours of her songs. Then Apple disappeared into the twilight of the stage, and Nickel Creek took over. For hours. Like a Deadwood soundtrack that never gave way to the actual episode, their bluegrass instrumentals droned on… and on. Apple’s set had been for the most part banterless. And oh, if only she hadn’t opened her mouth but to sing! Her on-stage intensity doesn’t jibe with the kind of loose banter used by other musicians to patch over moments between songs, and her one attempt at a joke (about having a beer valve in her head?) left the audience bemused by the awkward turn of the genius lyricist.
But Apple’s silence was a thankful alternative to the painful conversation of Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile and Sara Watkins. Verging on a marital spat, they issued a never-ending back-and-forth about the meanings of children’s songs, the virtues of the backstage couch, and other nonsensical topics that were frustrating, boring, and that ultimately hampered the audience’s enjoyment of the set. By the middle of the second set, the third endless dialogue, and the hundredth instrumental, the crowd was getting antsy. Shouts of “Fiona!” and even “Get off the stage!” peppered the polite clapping, and Nickel Creek — tied to their set list and their scripted repartee — could only weakly promise the crowd that she would appear again. People began filtering out, grumbling about the unexpected set-up of the performance. After a guitar song, a tap dance, and yet another on-stage discussion that left me wondering if I accidentally wandered into Prairie Home Companion, Apple graced the stage for a few more songs. Nickel Creek’s bluegrass instruments and the harmonization provided by Thile and Watkins’ voices did bring melancholy sweetness to Fiona’s bitter lyrics, but their airy folk music fell flat as soon as she left the stage. What gives? Well, this set was developed in Los Angeles’ Largo, an intimate club where collaborations and talk come off as spontaneous — not forced — and appearances by well-known musicians seem like great gifts, not false promises. Largo is not the cavernous Mann Center, and Apple and Nickel Creek just couldn’t translate the vibe of cozy improv for an outdoor amphitheater. Though the performance had its moments, in the end much of the crowd seemed to appear let down, left to grumble their way through long lines of traffic home — perhaps listening to Extraordinary Machine along the way.