I've seen The Dresden Dolls and Amanda Palmer enough to know to expect an extravagant theatrical experience, but Tuesday (December 16, 2008) at the Fonda surpassed every other encounter I've had with this musical phenomenon. This was the last night of her current tour in support of her solo CD, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, and she was in exuberant form.
When I arrived the opening band, The Builders and The Butchers, were well into their set. Their music was pleasant rock and roll, well played and well sung but seemed a little tame when compared with the headliner. I only heard a few songs, but they kept the audience entertained.
The next time the curtain rose an MC of sorts announced, in a somber tone, that Amanda Palmer was dead and would not be appearing tonight. In her place would be assorted artists to pay tribute to the deceased songstress and that it wouldn't do any good to laugh or cry because Amanda Palmer is fucking dead! I'm just quoting him. He then launched into a recitation of the fabulous liner notes from the album, written by Neil Gaiman (who, incidentally, made an unexpected appearance on stage).
Next up was the incredible violin virtuoso, Zoe Keating, who I've seen with Amanda before. Like before, the spell this woman cast was hypnotic and surprisingly moving. She composes deep, reverential tone poems that sound like a score for some non-existent independent film (a period romantic tragedy), often bringing me to the verge of tears.
In the style of Andrew Bird, she records and plays back all parts, building each piece into a multi-layered string arrangement so beautiful she leaves the audience begging for more. She only played three pieces, each about seven minutes long, but when she was finished I felt like my musical appetite had been satiated. Honestly, I could have gone home at that point and felt totally satisfied.
Not so fast. The MC returned to tell us that Amanda Palmer was still dead and that it still wasn't funny. As a couple of musicians assembled on stage (Zoe included) and began a funereal dirge, four actor/pantomime artists came from back stage slowly to assume positions at the edge of the stage, staring down the audience.
At this point I was standing near the center of the Fonda floor, just beyond the packed crowd huddled between me and the stage. Minding my own business, lost in the reverie of the gorgeous music Zoe was playing, I was suddenly aware of a hand gripping my left shoulder. I turned slowly and beheld a ghostly figure, all swathed in lace and veils. I turned away, assuming it's just another Amanda-fanatic going to extremes. But she didn't let go, and I looked again, and I realized, this is Amanda Palmer! We looked each other in the eyes and she was off toward the stage, accompanied by another lace-draped ghost, creeping ever so slowly through the audience until she reached the stage. At this point, the audience had seen what was going on and was screaming with excitement.
Assuming her position behind her keyboard, she launched into "Astronaut" with that great pounding piano, followed by some of her most hushed vocals. The crowd leaned forward and held their breath. It was stunning.
This woman makes a career out of confounding expectations. To begin a concert by whispering reminded me of her busking career as the living statue in Harvard Square, "The Eight Foot Bride". From what I've read, she would dress as a bride, stand on hidden elevations to assume the height and paint her face white. She'd stand motionless for long minutes gathering some observers and at just the right moment begin moving. People reacted as one would expect.
She electrified the audience with "Blake Says", "Strength Through Music", "Guitar Hero" and "Hard To Drive" from Who Killed Amanda Palmer. I found the songs to be much more moving than I remembered and found myself quite caught up emotionally from time to time. She even gave us "Coin Operated Boy" accompanied by some of her groping actors. The theatrics and the lighting and the sound were all terrific.
Loved the number with the four actors holding umbrellas over Amanda's head as they poured water from bottles all over the place. Very dramatic and visually magnificent! This show resembled theatre of the highest order, and it could so easily have gone overboard into the realm of the pretentious. But, dead or alive, Amanda Palmer has the intelligence and the taste to know just how far to go.
She said she'd be back next year on another solo tour and that she and Brian are planning a special tour of The Dresden Dolls, also in 2009. Anytime she appears in Los Angeles, I will be there.