Leslie Feist can't help how likable she is. I got the feeling last night, May 9, her first of three evenings at the Fillmore, that this is sometimes a cross to bear -- that if she could be weirder, less digestible, smoke the fist-pumping bros in attendance out of their entitled, beery, request-yelling hole, she might.
Alas, the singer's idiosyncratic voice and not-immediately-accessible new album do little when pitted against her charm. She is the same Feist whose biggest song is still mainly recognized in the pop culture zeitgeist as that song from an iPod commercial. This, she cannot undo.
She can, however, hold an audience captive for a solid two and a half hour-long set, and this, she did: playing through the entirety of Pleasure, the record released just two weeks ago, she balanced the album's intimacy and minimalism with a playful and satisfyingly hard-rocking confidence.
Several critics have said they've found Pleasure to be a grower, if you will. Feist does not care. At 41, she recently told NPR that the record came from a place of wanting to get back to basics, to make something "sustainable" she will feel fondly toward in her 70s. It follows, then, that her older songs still have value, containing "little embedded, codified messages" from "28-year-old Leslie."
It reminded me of Joan Didion's best-known essay, On Keeping a Notebook, in which the writer says we are "well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not." And regardless of what Leslie Feist herself thinks of her earlier, more heavily produced successes, this live audience clearly found all versions of Feist the Recording Artist -- including the most recent, introspective edition -- to be more than decent company.
"Who came here tonight with someone they're really into? " she asked with a grin as she scanned the sold-out crowd. "I want you to look into their eyes for this song. But no pressure or anything." That preceded "Any Party," the album's only true pop tune, built over a campfire guitar strum, an ode to being drunk off new love. (Shirts bearing its chorus, You know I'd leave any party for you, were available at the merch table, natch.)
Feist takes old-fashioned breaks from releasing music and traditional touring, so it's easy to think of her presence in a spotlight as something of a rarity: Pleasure marks a six-year gap since 2011's widely acclaimed, orchestral Metals, which followed a four-year recovery period after 2007's The Reminder, the record that launched her into stardom, "Mushaboom," "1234," Sesame Street fame and all.
But live, one is immediately reminded she's been performing since she was 15, whether at the helm of her first punk band, or as one of a dozen-plus voices contributing to the gorgeous cacophony of Broken Social Scene. (A fan yelled out "Lover's Spit" at one point, to which she replied "Wrong band!" and then, "Give me a few months." She did, in fact, contribute to the new BSS record, due out in July.)
Alone, however, she plays with tension masterfully. Feist knows she has you in the palm of her hand. You are going to listen to each pregnant silence between very purposeful notes, you are going to like it, and then she is going to hit you over the head with some new contradiction.
That might mean layering her own voice over itself until a wavered question becomes an anthem, as on "Lost Dreams"; performing 15 seconds of guitar fireworks with a lighthearted headbang before ducking back behind the mic for a coy "You guys like that?"; or somehow managing to come off consistently humble -- self-deprecating, even, dare I say Canadian? -- while wearing a neon pink dress in front of a sparse three-man backing band all in black, as an oversized decorative fan printed with roses unfolded dramatically behind them. (Basically the large-scale indie-rock version of the clamshell from The Little Mermaid, as a friend noted.)
By the time she completed the new album and launched into the obligatory fan favorites -- "My Moon My Man," "I Feel It All," et al -- I had changed my mind about how she must feel toward her more fairweather, iPod commercial-oriented fans.
If a musician's catalog is the sonic version of Didion's notebooks, after all, then Feist's notebooks, unlike most of ours, are available for purchase on iTunes and Amazon. And even at their least accessible -- judging by the glowy-eyed couples floating toward the exits, Fillmore posters in hand -- they can't help it that they, along with their author, are exceedingly likable. In an industry where charm is money, there are, it turns out, worse burdens for an artist to bear.
Feist performs again Wednesday, May 10 and Thursday, May 11 at the Fillmore, the latter of which still has tickets ($39.50) available.