The heat is overwhelming to spite the setting sun: Sweat stains spread on the backs of shirts like Rorschach ink blots, and a mix of indigo and amethyst lights catch in the wispy backdrop of the Pavilion. With the white big-top and Southern aristocrat dress of some of the folks on hand, the scene looks like a backwoods revival in reverse; darkness seems to leak out from beneath the tent and color the sky as the night progresses.
Devil in disguise: Fiona Apple channeled the spirits while the inventive bluegrass band Nickel Creek kept listeners in the throes of ecstasy at the Charlottesville Pavilion on Saturday night.
And a revival isn’t too far fetched. The three virtuoso musicians in Nickel Creek—mandolin wiz Chris Thile, violinist Sara Watkins and her brother Sean, the group’s guitarist—have a working knowledge of bluegrass, country and folk that extends well beyond their years (the oldest member of the group, Sean Watkins just cracked 30), dipping as far back as the ’40s and ’50s when they could’ve played the backing band to a spiritual leader’s wild-eyed, raving homilies. In fact, following Nickel Creek’s opening song “This Side”—a spare, string-popping number that earns approving noises from the audience—band leader Thile makes a crack about the revival feel of the evening.
“You know you’ve started off on the wrong foot when you forsake your loved one for the devil,” the lanky, invigorating mandolin-man says with a laugh. “What a project, though.”
And Fiona Apple has the devil in her. Thanks to a series of sit-in performances with the Creek during a weekly club gig in L.A., Apple accepted an invite to hit the road with the trio of string geniuses for their “Farewell (For Now)” tour. As Nickel Creek expertly controls the momentum of the evening—working the crowd to an applause-wracked mess during up-tempo instrumental numbers that see Sara Watkins playing a human metronome, swinging her skirt side to side, then granting the congregation rest during the sea chantey “House Carpenter”—there is a monster lurking backstage ready to captivate the souls in the tent. Until, finally…
Sara Watkins and Thile pluck out the opening strains of “Extraordinary Machine” as the waifish Apple steps onstage in a loose orange housedress, timidly steps to a microphone stand and opens the mouth that has stirred listeners to sin since she released her first record at age 18.
On record, “Extraordinary” hits like an orchestra setting up in a New York jazz bar after a few whiskeys; with a bluegrass chaser, however, the song pops and struts a bit more, as does Apple, hands drumming the demon in her gut. Rather than following the glistening lead track from her latest record with another of her rumbling piano tunes, Apple remains at the mic and sings with Sara Watkins as Thile kicks up “I Wanna Play That Rock And Roll,” a rollicking song by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings.
Apple is possessed. Removed from her traditional piano, her body convulses from the waist up, as if the keys are the only things that ground her to the earth—her foot taps but she never hits a pedal, her shoulders tense and jut but she never strikes a note. Her black piano remains untouched through the entirety of the concert, and Nickel Creek fleshes out the skewed standard jazz of “Paper Bag” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.”
The listeners rise from their pews and take a break after a first set, and head back into mass for another ripping introductory set by Thile and the duo Watkins, including the Grammy-winning instrumental “Smoothie Song” (with Thile soothing and jarring the audience with minor-stepping solos on the bouzouki). A hushed version of “Anthony,” sung by Sara Watkins while the band circles together around a single microphone, cools down the tent.
The madwoman re-emerges and tears into “A Mistake” and “Oh Well,” the band dropping out entirely on the latter song as Apple belts “What wasted, unconditional love” like Loretta or Dolly. The fragile, ’50s housewife image projected by Apple’s dress disintegrates—she looks like Aunt Jemimah throwing pancakes in a rage, or June Cleaver whupping Wally’s ass.
“It’s time for a bluegrass song,” Thile announces a moment later. “Fiona’s been studying that high, lonesome sound.” Apple’s breakout single, “Criminal,” comes packaged like a revenge ballad and, though the new, twangy edge is rough to get used to, her spiraling harmonies with Sara Watkins give the tune and its composer a powerful second life.
The congregation is pouring sweat and applause now; a few folks dance in the aisle as their spirits demand. And, though Apple and the Creek will re-emerge for a calming encore of the Billy Rose/Lee David tune, “You Belong to Me,” the night peaks at the second set’s finale, the reeling “Fast As You Can.” Nickel Creek’s interweaving strings boil over onto the stove while Apple, ever the possessed housewife, flails in the throes of some fit like an epileptic Iggy Pop. The piano stands ignored, but we’ve got the devil in us now, we’re opening the top of the piano and dancing hellfire on the strings.