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Amanda PalmerAmanda Palmer
& The Danger Ensemble

Andrew O'Neil

Electric Ballroom, London
Wednesday January 4 2009

I'm a little surprised to find myself here.

I'm standing in a queue on a cold Camden High Street, ticket wilting in my hot hand, waiting to get in, get to the front, and get a load of
Amanda Palmer.

That's Amanda fucking Palmer out of the Dresden Dolls, of course - but there's the rub. I've never really liked the Dresden Dolls.

I saw the Dresden Dolls play live back in 2004, at a custard factory in Birmingham (yes, really) when the band was still relatively unknown to the world outside Boston, Massachusetts. Although I expected to like them - I mean, Brechtian punk cabaret? Should be good, right? - the gig didn't quite turn into the night I thought it was going to be. I reviewed that show for the US zine StarVox - you can see me being all lukewarm and unconvinced here.

But that was then, and this is now.

The two members of the Dresden Dolls are at present taking time out to explore their own tangents, and tonight Amanda Palmer's tangent has brought her to London, for the latest date on an unfeasibly extensive solo tour. And, somewhat in a spirit of here goes nothing, I've turned up to catch the show. If nothing else, the absence of the other Doll, drummer Brian Viglione - whose rampant John Bonham impressions thwacked me upside the head at that gig Andrew O'Neill, liasingin '04 - should ensure we get a little more light and shade tonight.

Just inside the door of the venue, a masked hostess hands me a playing card - the nine of diamonds. It occurs to me that the masked hostess might be Amanda Palmer herself, doing some sort of disguised performance-art installation. She does that sort of thing, you know. I give her an ironically raised eyebrow just in case.

Meanwhile, on stage, a gent in somewhat messed-with formal wear is hurling funny lines at us. Andrew O'Neil is a stand-up comedian who's been roped in tonight as 'Amanda Palmer's audience liason officer' - a smile, a song, a bowler hat, and a rapid-fire fusillade of one-liners.

I suspect he's giving us the enormodome version of his act tonight - I'd like to see him in a small-scale comedy dive where he could really engage with the audience - but then he goads the crowd into stamping out a bizarrely convincing version of Queen's 'We Will Rock You', and all of a sudden the enormodome looks like his natural home.

Detektivbyrån are a sort-of folk band from Sweden. But before you run away with the idea that they're all twangly guitars and hey-nonny-no, let me state right here that they're much more sort-of than folk. Three earnest chaps rattle out quirky instrumentals on drums, electronics, accordion, glockenspiel and kitchen scissors. I usually try to avoid the dread, dead, word 'quirky', but I can't help it this time. Detektivbyrån are quirky.

  Detektivbyrån, being quirky  

Here in the familiar surroundings of the Electric Ballroom, one of London's principal rock clubs, the band seem utterly, delightfully incongrous - but then, I think they'd seem incongruous anywhere, except perhaps at a tea dance at the Jukkasjärvi ice hotel. It's odd in a nice way, and never quite descends into mere tweeness.

The stage is cleared of extraneous hardware. From here on in, it's just Amanda and her Kurt Weill keyboard. But then again, no it's not. This may be an Amanda Palmer solo gig, but she is not alone. The Danger Ensemble, a troupe of performance artists from Australia who collectively resemble a Bacchanalian dinner party that's got way out of hand, are a big part of this show.

Amanda PalmerThey kick things off with a brave, but rather inconclusive, living statue routine in the middle of the crowd (fine for those standing nearby, who can actually see it; fairly pointless for others further away, who can't) and then, back on stage, continually interrupt the proceedings with bouts of surreal voguing, comedy dance moves, and bizarre tableaux of sex and (possibly) shopping.

There's also a guest musician, violinist Lyndon Chester, who looks endearingly bemused at the controlled chaos erupting around him.

But, of course, the centre of this art-riot, the eye of the storm, the musical fulcrum upon which the circus revolves, is Amanda Palmer herself, an ever-engaging mistress of ceremonies.

She pounds her keyboard with trademark gusto, and leads the crowd - for it seems everyone's up for a singalong - through a selection of Dresden Dolls numbers ('Backstabber', 'Coin Operated Boy'), tunes from her solo album ('Bad Habit', 'Have To Drive') and occasional covers, apparently pulled out of thin air at random.

'My Favourite Things' from The Sound Of Music works rather well, given the AFP treatment, and I'm genuinely delighted at her cover of Momus' 'I Want You, But I Don't Need You'. Sometimes I think I'm the only person who ever bought a Momus album. It's nice to know that Amanda appreciates his half-wistful, half-cynical songs, too.

In amongst the music and the art-attacks, Amanda converses at length with the crowd, on such subjects as the artist/audience relationship - the more direct the better, she says, encouraging everyone to join her mailing list via text message right then and there - and her own tendency to fiddle randomly with microphones and faders on stage, as if compelled to be doing something even when there's nothing to do.

Amanda PalmerShe gives us a plangent, urgent, rendition of 'Slide', with the Danger Ensemble stalking spookily around her - and an improvised, mournful, deliberately po-faced version of her single 'Oasis'. She speculates that if the song had been given a suitably maudlin treatment, instead of being an uptempo exercise in black humour (the lyrics concern a teenage girl who is more concerned about a spat with her best friend than her abortion) it might not have been banned by every radio station on the planet.

The po-faced version is absurd and hilarious, of course, but it's quite a relief when Amanda abandons it to pitch in to the real version - a genuinely witty, pointed song, a situation comedy in miniature with a brilliant lyrical punchline.

Just when we think the proceedings have settled down to something resembling a normal gig, it's all wrenched in other directions again. The Danger Ensemble auction off a painting (with piano accompaniment), to raise extra cash for what is, apparently, a shoestring tour without much in the way of music biz bankrolling. The auction, a performance art interlude in itself, raises a cool four hundred quid.

There's a Katy Perry-baiting routine, in which a faux-Katy is required to really kiss a girl. A couple are invited up for an on-stage marriage proposal (the answer is yes; at which point the audience nearly brings the house down), 'Leeds United' is given a rollicking run-out - with the unexpected appearance of a punk rock horn section beefing up the arrangement - and, by way of a grand finale, the entire cast pose, with gleeful extravagance, for photos along the front of the stage.

As I head for the exit, keeping a look out for masked hostesses touting playing cards as I go - because you never know when the art will stop - I reflect that tonight Amanda Palmer and her collaborators turned the usual concept of a gig upside down and shook it until something different - something ramshackle, playful, Amanda Fucking Palmercolourful and at times genuinely moving - fell out of its pockets.

It's not the sort of thing that most performers could get away with, I suspect. I can't envisage how a conventional guitar-bass-drums band would manage such an art 'n' music mash-up. But tonight, it all worked.

I suppose that makes me an Amanda Palmer fan, then, doesn't it? I can't argue with the evidence. I walked in to this gig, bristling with cynicsm, wearing my best 'Go on, impress me' expression - and now I'm walking out, wearing a foolish grin, impressed.

One more thought occurs to me, before I brave the cold of Camden High Street one more time. Now that I've officially become a fan of Amanda fucking Palmer, I'll have to give the Dresden bloody Dolls another go, won't I?


Amanda Palmer: Website | Facebook

The Danger Ensemble: Website | Facebook

Detektivbyrån: Website

Andrew O'Neil: Website | Facebook


For more photos from this gig, find Amanda Palmer by name here.

Page credits: Words, photos and construction by Michael Johnson. Nemesis logo by Antony Johnston. Red N version by Mark Rimmell.

Words and photos in Nemesis To Go by Michael Johnson are licenced under Creative Commons. You may copy and distribute this material, or derivations of it, provided that you give a credit to Michael Johnson and a link to Nemesis To Go. Where material from other sources is used, copyright remains with the original owners. All rights in the name 'Nemesis To Go' and the 'N' logo are retained.