Words by: Phil W.
Amanda Plays A Small Show
Amanda, dressed in nothing but a corset and suspenders, climbs down off the small stage and into the audience. Her arms are smeared with black paint and her ragged hair is slick with sweat. In her right hand she is clutching a battered ukulele. The venue is small, the air thick with the sweat of 350 fans crammed into a tight, dark hole. It’s intimate and personal, the sweaty figure of Amanda in underwear squeezing through the audience and climbing onto the small concession table at the back of the room. Unamplified and off key, she begins to sing a cover of Radiohead’s Creep.
She sat behind her piano, Amanda in corset and paint, and gently played Hallelujah, the standard from Leonard Cohen. She gradually built up the tension, emotion tearing each verse. Appeared at the back, a girl dressed in black, wide eyed and barely nineteen. She was all long dark hair and waif like features, eyes open wide and alive. She was guided to the side of Amanda, told to sit on a stool by her feet;
“She broke your throne and she cut your hair….”
A man in black appeared behind the girl and proceeded to cut away long strands of her dark hair. Walking to the edge of the stage, he passed her locks out to members of the audience.
A backing track plays as Amanda Palmer steps out on stage for the first time. In her hands she clutches a set of hastily written cardboard signs, their words smeared down in thick black paint; Hello, I Made, A Record, This Is, Not, It, This, Is, Ben Folds, He, Helped Me, Make, My Record, I, Love Him, And, I, Love, You.
After the show I spy Amanda in the bar. She’s drifting absently between her fans, saying hi and signing autographs. I’ve nothing for her to sign. She offers me a lock of hair which I’m not sure I want; “but it’s so romantic!” she replies seductively. I tell her I really dug the show and she seems pleased. She puts her arm around me and strokes my chest. “Thank you” she says, her vivid eyes like glistening pools that dive deep into her soul.
Amanda Makes A Music Video
The lights are big and round and white and we are told repeatedly not to look at the camera once the film is rolling. There is a hushed atmosphere of excited anticipation coursing through the theatre. It’s our turn now, the cameras now fall on us. The director has been pacing back and forth around the upper tier of the theatre all morning, her expression focused. When she talks, she doesn’t need a microphone; “Ok, so what I want you guys to all do is all just act like screaming Amanda Palmer fans, just all go crazy, then the football fans are gonna come down here shouting “Leeds United”, then you’ll all be cheering together, then I want you guys to love each other, hugging, kissing, whatever, and then I want you all to start killing each other, really going for it, but comedy killing, its all got to be very over the top, people watching the video have got to know it’s a joke otherwise it won’t work…..”
The stalls are cleared and the tables are set. Inside the frosted glass illusion, this might be drinks in a prohibition era speakeasy. But beyond the illusion, huge omnipresent cameras wheel across the theatre on rails. On stage there is a huge, glowing sign; large round bulbs spell out AMANDA. In front of the sign is Amanda herself, casually dressed and loosely going through her dance moves and miming to Leeds United. It doesn’t really seem too important what she does though, she’s Amanda Palmer. It is the backing dancers which flank her either side that are getting the grilling from the dance director and who practice over and over again long after Amanda has disappeared into makeup.
Outside the venue it started to rain. Amanda’s personal assistant had a camcorder and she filmed me singing a few lines from the forthcoming single Leeds United. While most of the extras had already gone, it had become increasingly clear it would take more work to move on some of us. We had got out of bed at 5am that Sunday morning and some of us had travelled long distances to be at the video shoot. Amanda’s personal assistant took us all for coffee and filmed us singing Leeds United in a shopping mall.
Amanda Plays A Bigger Show
There is something strangely fitting about watching the show from high up in the gods of the Koko Theatre. Maybe it is something to do with the theatrical nature of her performances; the burlesque cabaret of miming and street performers, unlikely musicians, the dancers and the costumes which accompany her live show. Her music effortlessly combines Weimar era cabaret with punk and rock n roll. Her music sounds simultaneously post-modern and classical, ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ as she self-described her music as one half of Boston-based alternative legends Dresden Dolls. Maybe it’s all those photos of bombed out theatres on the inside of the Yes, Virginia artwork, the Dresden Dolls’ second album, but it is fitting to see Amanda perform in a theatre, and watch her from a place where the existence of the theatre around you is so constantly apparent.
These are unfortunate times and when a dark cloud descends over a loved one there is often little one can do to help. It was left to Mr. Gaiman to break the sad news; from his place on the stage he reported the recent death of Amanda Palmer. Miss Palmer’s corpse, shrouded beneath a flowing white gown, was carried on stage by members of her performance troupe; freaks who perhaps would have found work nowhere else but in her travelling circus. Their heads were dipped, their queen had fallen. They placed her body behind the piano, where in life she had no doubt felt most at home…
…Amanda launches into the epic assault of Astronaut. Over the next hour and a half she ploughs through most of the songs on her new album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and plunders songs from both Dresden Dolls records. Stand out highlights included a run through of Bad Habit and I Google You, a song co-written by Neil Gaiman. A horn section backs her for Leeds United; Guitar Hero erupts into a line dancing extravaganza with Amanda hopping around the stage in a plaster cast, having previously injured her foot. During an emotional performance of Strength Through Music, a song inspired by the Columbine Massacre, mime artists from her dance troop join her on stage dressed in school uniforms.
Seeing Amanda and co-conspirators dancing and miming to a backing track of Rihanna’s Umbrella, complete with real life umbrellas seemed unlikely but it happened - as did a cover of Bon Jovi’s Living On A Prayer. But Amanda pulled it off with style, skill and humour, her singing barely on key, her voice powerful and emotion driven, her piano playing confident and heartfelt. The show was wonderfully burlesque and just a little tongue-in-cheek. If there’s one message Amanda wanted to leave us with tonight, it seems to be that she’s no pop star. Record labels apparently made that mistake and she’s still sore about it, turning vitriol into mockery. But underneath what really drives Amanda is her songs; creative and intelligent, energetic and heartbroken, honest and theatrical, humorous but serious, and constantly twisting, refusing to be pigeonholed. Beneath the fiction there is truth, behind the comedy there is honesty. Amanda isn’t afraid to put her heart before her head, to die for her art if that art is pure. Combine that with her larger-than-life stage persona and a gig that that’s just as much a fringe theatre production and you’ve got something truly special. For now though, I still can’t stop playing her records….
Based on events occurring at the ICA London – 21st August, the Coronet Theatre – 31st August and the London Koko – 10th October 2008.