Venue: Union Chapel, London
Support: Polly Scattergood
“Ok, so this is really weird!” confessed Miss Palmer, two songs into her solo set. “I don’t really know what I’m doing here! I mean, I’m not on tour. I just decided to do this show tomorrow and then I added this one. And like, I’m in a church which is really amazing, but also really intimidating!”
If you’re going to go Gothic, go Gothic! The Union Chapel in Islington, built in 1874, is a breathtaking example of Victorian Gothic architecture. From the outside the Gothic facade is a mass of compromised red brick but inside the hexagonal interior is stunning, a vast monument of carved wood and stone groping for the sky. That night it was lit in soft reds and deep purples, there is a large font in the centre of a stage, a backdrop of carved lattices finishes the dark illusion. Complete with fairy lights and candles arranged around the balcony ledge, it is easy to imagine we are really in some baroque romance.
“It’s just so quiet!” continued Amanda, centre stage from behind her electronic piano. And it was, the cavernous room barely filled by little Amanda in corset and boots. “I had this whole set planned but I think I’m just going to throw it all away and make it up as I go. Does anyone have any requests?”
Behind Amanda, an artist has started work on a large canvas leaned up against the font. We can’t quite see what he’s painting but he continues to work as if not on a stage at all. After a sea of hands, someone suggests Blake Says and Amanda agrees; “Ok, yeah, I’d forgotten about that song! Yeah, I’ll give that a go!”
A subdued atmosphere hung over the early evening throng of black clad parishioners queued up outside the Union Chapel. It was early September and wind rustled through dry leaves in lazy trees whispering the secrets of the coming autumn in shades of ochre and gold along the broad street. There were hushed whispers between unlikely revellers; subdued excitement for tonight’s dark mass. A girl in black dress with face of painted white held up a sign and looked up with mournful, lonely gaze; “Free Hugs!” A man with a black hat and a serene and playful smirk operated a Miss Palmer hand puppet - he moved along the crowd seeing that everyone got the briefest kiss. A girl dressed as Alice from Wonderland gave out small, hand crafted envelopes of red and purple, full of stars and hearts and each one accompanied by a wooden rose. As the light dimmed, a man on a piano bicycle machine rode along the crowd and played to us while a girl in a heavy dress sang.
Once inside the cavernous church, we moved quickly for spaces near the front along the pews – it was seating room only in this house of worship. The last remaining rays of the day still shone through stained glass, the atmosphere was light and celebratory. We didn’t “get” Polly Scattergood, not during her support act, and not when she accompanied Amanda with a cover of Puff The Magic Dragon. Her support set was downbeat synth-pop which could have been great but just wasn’t really, while her backing band looked bored and vaguely embarrassed. Polly’s delicate heart was broken and she let us know it repeatedly with her clumsy, humourless lyrics. We’re sorry Polly, maybe he’s just not worth it!?
Then a slender man in dark suit and sporting impressive mutton-chops announced from the stage that a talented young organist from Hereford would now be joining us and what then came to pass proved a far better interlude than Polly Scattergood was a support. His pipe organ playing sent spirals of twisting sound crawling high in the domed Gothic interior with angel wings and devilish hooves. Then Miss Palmer appeared briefly on stage before disappearing behind the font to perform her first song, a very dark and sombre number, from inside the organ console.
“That was supposed to be completely seamless!” laughed Miss Palmer from her piano stool. She’d played the opened bars to Missed Me on the pipe organ before leaping from the organ console hidden behind the font, diving across the stage, stumbling, reaching behind the keyboard, and attempting to pick up the song again. She went on to play one of the standout tracks from the Dresden Dolls’ self-titled debut and followed it with Astronaut from her latest album Who Killed Amanda Palmer?. Following her performance of Blake Says, a sea of hands reappeared and she had to say “it’s ok, I have an idea.” Looking about herself with glee, at the surroundings of the church, she broke into a riotous performance of Sex Changes.
“Ok, so this is a song written by my wonderful boyfriend Mr. Neil Gaiman. He’s actually a really great songwriter!” she announced before a beautiful and amusing performance of I Google You. “So I’ve just realised, it’s September 11th and I’m in a church so I have to play this song,” she said and then broke into a heart-wrenching performance of Truce. Halfway through, she suddenly stopped playing. “Oh no…. does anyone know the next line?” She laughs and looks genuinely stumped until someone cries out “we can split Germany!” The performance becomes typical of Amanda’s easy going style tonight, performing unrehearsed songs barely remembered just as she thinks of them. It’s intimate, it’s personal, this is a naked Amanda caught in the eye of a magnifying glass but also an Amanda full of humour and optimism and magnetic personality and oozing talent and stagecraft. “This is something I’ve meant to do for a while,” she explained. “I can’t read music you see, not well, but I’ve challenged myself to play some classical piano - and if I fail, well, at least I’ll come away from this with a genuine Catholic guilt!” What came next was full of mistakes but was also a dizzying array of piano skills.
At the end of the set she was joined on stage by Polly Scattergood’s band. Amanda looks about again at the interior of the church, smiles; “we’re all going to hell!” With wild delight the band breaks into Oasis and Amanda rolls out the line “when I got my abortion!” deliciously with all the wielding pleasure of a sledge hammer to the Berlin Wall.
Miss Palmer straddled the balcony above the stage; cradling a red ukulele she dedicated a cover to Neil Gaiman. “Just to make it clear,” she interrupted half way through, “it’s just because he taught me the song.”
“Ok, so can you see this guy painting behind me?” Amanda indicated to the artist at work behind her on the stage. “It’s a two night painting!” she continued. “I think at the end of the night tomorrow we’re going to auction it off or something.” Back behind her piano, she finished her encore with a spine tingling performance of Point Of It All followed by a final punk burst of Runs In The Family. As she left the stage for a final time, after two hours of music, the audience collectively sighed and wished she didn’t have to go.
Outside the Union Chapel, a huge low moon hung in the night sky. Revelers had their photos taken beside the piano bicycle machine while others moved quickly toward buses and railway stations, disappearing back into the throng of London streets. And so we bid our goodbyes once more, farewell and good evening, until we meet again.