Yes, I contributed to Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra’s now infamous Kickstarter campaign, but at the same time, I don’t claim to be a mega-fan. My participation in the fundraising was, when it comes down to it, selfish. I liked Palmer well enough, and as a Boston native, the idea of supporting one of our brightest stars was a plus. But really, I just wanted to be a part of it: this big, headline-grabbing experiment, the first real Kickstarter phenomenon. I’m also a complete sucker for anything “limited edition” (see my stacks of variant covered comic books), and wanted my grubby little collector’s hands on the exclusive vinyl package – which, I should mention, is absolutely gorgeous and worth every cent I dropped on it.
Of course, I wouldn’t be saying that if the music were shite. Theatre Is Evil is an exciting collection of challenging rock songs packed with Palmer’s unfailing lyricism, living up to the hype the ex-Dresden Doll pumped into it. Then again, there’s the rub: the hype was self-promoted. Publications and blogs everywhere reported the hell out of this whole process because Palmer herself was reporting the hell out of it (which I sometimes think may be why this one didn’t). Everywhere you could find Palmer – her Twitter page, the Kickstarter page – she was promising the greatest thing she’d ever done, glitz, pizazz, and amazement beyond anything ever seen or heard before. The $1.2 million fundraising effort is arguably newsworthy in-and-of-itself, but even that is a result of the persona Palmer’s crafted for herself, paid off with 1.2 million dollars-plus worth of adoring fans.
This became the nagging concept circling my mind as I watched her Friday night sold-out show at The Paradise, her second of three hometown throw-downs to close out her massive world tour. Amanda Palmer is a show, from beginning to end, like an avant-garde indie Lady Gaga minus the nonchalant pretension and plus a heaping portion of charm (and true originalism? Zing). So how do you address the show of a show? If Palmer’s entire musical identity and career have become performance, how do you deal with her actual performance?
She pulled a neat little trick to break this self-imposed block by introducing each of the three opening acts herself. Grand Theft Orchestra’s conductor/bassist Jherek Bischoff started the night with a superb bass solo (when’s the last time you saw that happen?), followed by GTO’s guitarist Chad Raines’ Simple Pleasures project, who take a sequenced page from Scissor Sister’s book. Then there were covers of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Don’t Stop Believing” by “Boston’s premiere 80s pop saxophone duo,” Ronald Reagan. I would’ve been completely irked by the idea of what’s essentially a really good, kitschy Bar Mitzvah band opening a major show if the duo hadn’t ended up being part of the GTO horn section.
Point is, by coming out herself before each act, introducing them and addressing the audience like a keynote speaker at a rally more than a rock star at a concert, she blurred the lines. The way she spoke put her on an even level with her audience, both just part of some fishnet-gloved, pink-haired, corseted clan there to partake in a show – she just happened to be master of ceremonies. That kind of attitude goes a long way to couching her larger-than-art character; if you aren’t privy to her fans’ dress code, her penciled eyebrows, silver spandex, and Klaus Nomi corset, or her brash and artsy new wave cabaret, her presence and her music might be overwhelming. But Palmer’s all about making fans one of the family (bit cultish, yes?), and she’ll go out of her way to do it.
If the previously mentioned $1.2 million wasn’t proof of her success, the audience at the ‘Dise was. Between “Want It Back” and the Dresden Doll’s “Half Jack”, during one of many moments of audience interaction, Palmer mentioned that some of the crowd likely funded the tour they were currently enjoying. Hands and calls shot up from half of the packed house, some adorned with an underage-marking “X”, some with pink 21+ wristbands, some with wrinkles of old age. When Palmer asked if this was anyone’s first time at the venue since its 2010 remodel, even more raised hands and cheers came out. So much diversity, so many first timers, and all there to support this singular eccentric performer.
When she stood atop a riser, arms spread, and fell into the audience during “Bottomfeeder” (one of no less than three times she entered the crowd), they cushioned her perfectly, spreading out her jacket’s bridal train to its full length. They passed her along the entire house, even navigating her around the pesky columns in the center of the venue; a flawless sweep without even being told what to do. Then there was the I-shit-you-not magnificent cover of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” with Ronald Reagan on saxes, which broke into a “Happy Birthday” singalong for a member of Simple Pleasures. Palmer face-planted the cake and made one fan’s night by smearing frosting all over her with a kiss.
The music had the crowd eating out of her, um, mouth (ew) as much as the interactions did. Fan-shot images flashed across the stage during the raging “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)” and “Massachusetts Avenue”. After a succession of raucous singalongs, the crowd was completely hushed at Palmer’s request as she did her solo thing on “Trout Heart Replica” and the saddest song of the year, “Bed Song”. In fact, the silence was so absolute I was too afraid of stabbing glances to break it with the flutter of my camera’s shutter. At the start of every Dresden Dolls cover – “Missed Me”, “Half Jack”, “Girl Anachronism” – and even for Palmer’s pre-GTO cuts “Astronaut” and the stage-filling closer “Leeds United”, the crowd just went apeshit. The GTO carried those all as well as their own numbers, Michael McQuilken’s drums a fierce standout amongst a group of pointedly talented musicians.
Palmer introduced her controversially crowd-sourced string and horn sections by stating “If you haven’t been following the plot . . .” That word, “plot”, was a telling choice. It brought the concert back around to the idea that it’s all a show, so much of it carefully crafted even as it is – or appears to be – wildly spontanious. Palmer’s public persona, the thrown bottles of champagne, the reprise of “Want It Back” from the balcony – it’s all part of the crazy circus orchestrated by this curious, arresting artist. The show wasn’t without its flaws: the set’s uneven pace in the middle, the mark-missing NME pop medley. Still, the crafting is itself the art as much as the music. If the songs weren’t so damn good, it might not be so damn enjoyable – but they are, and it is. Amanda Palmer is indeed an artistic spectacle, but one that is wholly worth regarding.
A Grand Theft Intermission
Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)
Do It With a Rockstar
Missed Me (Dresden Dolls cover)
The Killing Type
Want It Back
Half Jack (Dresden Dolls cover)
Astronaut (Amanda Palmer solo cover)
Trout Heart Replica
MAGICFUTUREBOX (The Few Moments cover)
Careless Whisper (George Michael cover)/Happy Birthday
Girl Anachronism (Dresden Dolls cover)
Leeds United (Amanda Palmer solo cover)
NME Pop Medly
Want It Back (reprise from balcony)