Thursday, September 27, 2012

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra at The Fonda - September 25, 2012

Amanda Palmer has always presented some of the biggest challenges for me as a purveyor of popular music. Back when I was recording music videos as my only way of learning about new music, I had recorded her video for "Girl Anachronism" with The Dresden Dolls and, although at first I thought it was a bit studied, bizarre and overly theatrical, the edgy humor in it won me over and I grew to see it as a statement about the art they were creating. For one thing, Amanda's piano playing was startlingly aggressive and powerful, like her eyebrows, and Brian Viglioni's mime make-up coupled with the exaggerated gestures and fierce drumming made the duo one of the most strikingly adventurous bands I knew about.

I started seeing them live in 2006 when they played a free in-store at the now defunct Virgin Megastore on Hollywood Boulevard and I was struck by the legion of worshipful fans, all dressed in various recreations of Dresden Dolls attire; striped stockings, ripped bodices and bowler hats. The place was packed and I was way at the back, but the power of their live performance filled the store. I knew then that I would be a long-time fan.

Having seen The Dresden Dolls at The Wiltern, at a sit-down show at The Orpheum, even a musical/dramatic piece they performed in Boston based on the concept of the Gunter Grass story The Onion Cellar, I then started to track Amanda Palmer's solo career. When The Dresden Dolls went on hiatus in 2008, and she played The Troubadour in August that summer and she premiered songs from her forthcoming solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer. It was reassuring to see that her inspiration and performance drive were intact.

The Brechtian punk cabaret style was still the vehicle but the songwriting became more intense and revelatory. Her rambling, confessional songs are often so personal they can make the observer feel like a voyeur. Sometimes one hopes they're fiction. Her piano playing continued to be one of the biggest draws for me, as a fan of the instrument anyway, and I've never seen anyone play it the way she does. Even when it's sloppy, it's exactly right.

She played The Fonda later in 2008 and back to The Troubadour in June 2009, always with remarkable backing bands and consistently putting on a show that was as visually stimulating as the music. In October last year, she and Nail Gaiman, who she had recently married, toured in a limited music/spoken word concert that was almost like sitting with them in their living room as they traded off songs and words in a creative duel that was further proof of Amanda Palmer's commitment to expanding her and her audience's artistic boundaries.

So it's with this background that I trekked up to The Fonda on Tuesday night, September 25, 2012, for my ninth concert with Amanda Palmer. This time it was Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra and it was a show in four acts. Announced as a 9 o'clock start, I figured not much would happen by 9:30, so when I walked in Act One was just over and I'd missed it. Sorry about that, especially when the next act, turned out to be some odd amalgam of glam rock/Rocky Horror Picture Show theatricality and dated power singing and it seemed embarrassingly old-fashioned and not really what I came to see.

Act Three was far more successful...and surprising. They are a band from Boston (Amanda's home base) and called Ronald Reagan, though for no obvious reason I could detect. What they are is two gentlemen who play bass saxophones, interpreting pop songs using only those instruments and occasional vocal drum noises. The audience ate it up and it was pretty captivating. They said they had never been to Hollywood before and this was their first show in L.A. and you could tell they were very pleased with the reception they got from a very warm Los Angeles audience.

Then there was Amanda, backed by a twelve-piece Grand Theft Orchestra... the lighting, the staging, everything came together for a sublime experience. Playing mostly songs from her newest album, Theatre Is Evil, they sounded even more dazzling live than on the record. Amanda's remarkable stage presence is always warm and welcoming while at the same time she seems edgy and slightly dangerous.

She even performed a new and unique arrangement of "Coin-Operated Boy" which she began on piano, then switched off to guitar and finished on the drums, while the band tries to keep up with her. Her command is such that even during numbers where the band stops playing and she's barely whispering into the mike, the audience holds it's collective breath and listens attentively.

While wandering the lobby during Act Two, I noticed Palmer's social conscience at work with a table set up for voter registration. There was also a table asking audience member to write down the saddest, most awful thing that ever happened in their room.

There's always a part of the program devoted to Amanda reading comments from the audience, but this time the results were so gut-wrenching and emotional, the crowd was stunned. I have never heard a quieter bunch of people in my life as she read some of the saddest things I've ever a soft, quiet, winsome monotone that made the exercise all that much more moving. Comments like "I tried to commit suicide" or "I was raped by a parent" or "My parents told me I was too fat" rendered the room silent and people wept.

As an entertainer that's taking performance to the outer edges of audience expectations, but Amanda's fans are so willing to travel with her that the whole experience becomes one giant collective cathartic journey. Thank you Amanda Palmer.

photos by Brad Roberts (except Dresden Dolls portrait)

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