It was about the time people starting screaming "Fiona!" that it became painfully clear: somebody got this bill backwards.
Nickel Creek with Fiona AppleCity: Philadelphia, PA
Venue: Mann Center for Performing Arts
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.