Despite the exhaustion of Neon Reverb week further settling in — anyone know a good masseur? — last night's marathon of music may have been one of the best live-performance nights of the year, thanks especially to the incomparable Fiona Apple and a reemerged, refreshed A Crowd of Small Adventures.
First, Fiona. It's amazing how one little woman can level an entire venue, but even during the moments where her superb backing band quieted, Apple's dynamic voice and potent prose held the entire half-filled room in rapt attention. She was no singing slouch during her 2005-2006 Extraordinary Machine tour, which touched down in Las Vegas three different times, but her command of the stage felt stronger last night. Apple has already mastered performing the material from this year's The Idler Wheel...; she and her band seemed to assert themselves most assuredly during those numbers. Instead of spending most of the night at the piano, she stood at the center-stage mic and forcefully sang most of the setlist there, her facial expressions and physical movements (even the fidgeting) giving her words even more emotional weight. And most importantly, never once did she seem like she might go off the rails. During her Vegoose performance in 2006, she abruptly got up during the first song and started screaming at nobody in particular, leaving audience members wondering whether she would finish the song, let alone the rest of the set. Her only discernible moment of discomfort arose early in the set, when she railed against the video screens on either side of her. "I love you guys, I HATE [those] things!" she railed — and then seemed to regret the sentiment when the video techs (briefly) turned them off.
These days, Apple speaks like an excitable child, barely getting the words out in coherent fashion, as if the amount of expression needed to say them might overwhelm their delivery. This, despite her hyper-articulate, flubless lyrical recitation when singing. Gone are the pretentious or raving exclamations of the past; she merely just lets us know how she's feeling. And on Saturday night, she was clearly in a great mood, slaying us with her charm. After the spare "I Know" was performed with little-to-know chatter disruption, she beamed and said, "I can't believe you're that polite in Las Vegas! You get to go extra crazy after the show!" Anyone that's tried to watch a performer during a quiet, narrative-rich song in this city knows exactly what she's taking about.
Though Apple played for an encoreless 85 minutes — not even a return for big hit "Criminal" — it felt like a full set given that her performance skills allowed listeners to delve so deeply into each of the 17 stories she told that night. And the Joint was crowd was listening. It reveled especially during those lyrics where Apple’s bullshit meter is at full capacity or she’s ready to kick someone to the curb. “Fuckin' go, 'cause I’ve done what I could for you,” she sang, punctuated wonderfully, during “Get Gone,” in that song’s sudden, emotional release moment. In “I Know,” she snarked, matter-of-factly through gritted teeth, “Baby, I can’t help you out while she’s still around.” She struck chords in other, more introspective moments. “How can I ask anyone love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” she asked aloud in “Left Alone.” And sweetness and confidence abounded during “Extraordinary Machine,” especially when she owned the song’s title. You could almost imagine her performing on The Smith Center stage during a musical production — or, better yet, a one-woman show — her projection of the lyrics so perfectly matched to the mood of their respective songs, with clarity and even some uninhibited pantomine.
Backing up this tour de force was a quartet that included drummer Amy Wood, adept in relaying the percussive mojo of The Idler Wheel, and guitarist Blake Mills, who also opened the show with his own sit-down-and-shut-up set.
After that, it was time to head to Beauty Bar for Neon Reverb, where New York/Washington's Foxygen was in the middle of its Ziggy Stardust-meets-psych rock revival, a good-time throwback that nonetheless went on too long. Some time after, former Wolf Parade principal and Pitchfork Nation fave Spencer Krug made his Las Vegas debut with his new band, Moonface. When we caught the Canadian/Finnish band at L.A.'s FYF Fest over Labor Day weekend, its sonic nuances never quite made it out of the main-stage PA system. Ironically, the rarely reliable Beauty Bar sound system was so on point you could hear Krug beat his maracas against his chest when he was eight feet away from his microphone. And, this time, we were able to get a lot closer and watch Krug execute his numerous musical duties, an impressive juggling act for sure. This also allowed a deeper appreciation of his Gothic indie pop — veering into Can and Kraftwerk territory on occasion — with frontman Krug sounding like a hybrid of Peter Murphy and David Bowie. Good stuff, but two issues arose. A couple of slower jams droned on monotonously, even for our techno-friendly tastes, and devolved into undynamic dirges. (Well, we had to go inside and get another drink sometime.) And while we're all for musicians playing songs for their visiting parents, Krug's take on The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" was so overwrought it cast a grimacing shadow over an otherwise sweet gesture.
Foxygen and Moonface's long sets — certainly longer than the allotment on the Neon Reverb schedule (caveat: this was actually a Beauty Bar booking that merged into the festival) — pushed A Crowd of Small Adventures' comeback back nearly 90 minutes. This wasn't a problem for the dance parties both outside and inside the venue. But its post-2 a.m. start meant losing almost half of Moonface's large audience. A bummer for the Vegas band, but a bigger bummer for those who left: The now-six-member outfit stormed, and then owned, the stage like it had last played a week ago, impressively confident despite its hiatus and debuting a good handful of songs. Those newbies lived up to singer/guitarist Jackson Wilcox's description of being "less quirky, more organic," revealing a more straightforward approach that lost none of the melodic appeal or charm of the older ACOSA material.
Helping things along was a natural chemistry between the band members, which included a new bassist and drummer, and Mike Weller now on guitar. When the band roared through standard closer "Fast Travel," we almost expected the show to end, despite the short set duration — it was nearly 3 a.m. — but instead ACOSA played another, newer, climactic anthem ("The Balls," formerly of Weller's hibernating Hungry Cloud project), one we hope concludes its shows for the forseeable future. Oh: Wilcox acknowledged his also-present mother, but you didn't hear him busting out "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," thankfully.