Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra. Gothic Theatre. 09.21.12

It was just before dusk as the parade of costumed characters made its way down South Broadway to the aptly named Gothic Theatre on Friday night.  Those in the predominately female procession began to blur together, leaving faceless images draped in ruffled Victorian dresses augmented by leather corsets, sleeve tattoos, protruding silver studs, thick black eyeliner and heavy layers of foundation.  Two by two, they marched past us as we were pre drinking at Moe’s BBQ.  Seeing so many girls in such a short period of time can probably be blamed for the fact that I did not recognize the one who came up to the bar to close her tab — not until she said the name “Palmer”.  That last name, coupled with the signature eyebrows, woke me to the reality that it was none other than Amanda Palmer standing to my left.  She was lost in her smartphone but I still managed to say hello and thank her for the free tickets to the show.  She admitted to embarrassment at being caught tweeting at the bar, but didn’t say much else.  She was flustered as she quickly paid her bill and ran out of the BBQ joint.  “See you over there!”  As it turns out, in real life Amanda Palmer is just a real life girl.  This might seem like an obvious, if not stupid statement to make, but given the notoriety this woman has achieved over the years, not to mention the ‘messageboard punching bag’ she has become recently, it was a little surreal to have a moment of perfectly mundane interaction with her.  Although I can assure you that was the last mundane thing to happen for the rest of this epic evening with the former-Dresden Doll and her Grand Theft Orchestra.

If you don’t already know the story around her latest album and tour I’d be extremely surprised, but just in case you don’t, I’ll sum it up real quick.  Amanda Palmer negotiated herself out of a record contract that she felt was unfair.  She started a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000 to produce the next album on her own.  The campaign worked to the tune of $1.2 million — the most ever raised by a musician on this particular platform.  She made the album, released it to universal acclaim and everyone was happy.  It then came to light that Palmer and her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, were taking crowdsourcing to the next level by calling on local musicians to fill in on strings during the tour.  These musicians would be paid in ‘hugs and beer’.  This sparked a heated debate on blogs, messageboards and websites around the world.  Steve Albini called Palmer an idiot. Musicians wrote letters and called for a boycott of the tour.  Palmer responded (in great detail) on her blog, multiple times.  This went back and forth for quite awhile, and although Palmer stood her ground when it came to her position on the subject, she did listen to the other side.  After weighing her options and discussing it with the band, she decided she would pay the local musicians, even though most of them stood with her despite not being paid.

When it comes down to it, I think she did the right thing.  When you raise over $1 million from fans, every cent of that money should go into bringing those fans the best entertainment possible, but I also feel like the some of the attacks were misguided (some downright cruel) and I’m glad she proved to be the bigger person by paying the artists and shutting the conversation down before it caused an avalanche that would likely bury the amazing album and tour — the two things people SHOULD be talking about.  So, with that, let’s talk about them…

First off, the album is a midway ride operated by a drunken carny who falls asleep at the controls — requiring everyone to go through the full cycle of emotions (anticipation, excitement, love, loss, disappointment, fear, and even nausea) before being set back down on the dusty ground, disoriented and forever changed (for the next few minutes).  It really is THAT exciting and THAT destructive, and the live show makes it look like a toddler’s ride.

The massive crowd of sourcers were ecstatic in an almost religious manner by the time Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra took the stage for the main set.  We were already familiar with many of the players in this production, having been primed by bassist Jherek Bischoff and Boston’s ‘premier 80’s sax cover band’ Ronald Reagan, the former of which was joined by the Boulder Bassoon Quartet AND the Per Vita String Quartet.  The temperature in the theatre had been pushing past the point of hellish the entire night, but nothing could prepare for the heat that was about to emanate from the mistress of ceremonies.  The real life girl at the BBQ joint came out as something completely transformed — a hat, a gown, a piano and a mic were all it took to turn Amanda Palmer into Amanda Fucking Palmer!

The Grand Theft Orchestra, dressed all in white with white instruments, shared the front of the stage with Palmer, as they were backed by a full horn section and the aforementioned Per Vita String Quartet during “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)”.  Taking the lyrics to the album opener literally, camera phones took flight to capture the moment — because if there arn’t pictures, “it didn’t happen”.  And as the digital proof was being documented on iPhones, images from the past were projected on the white sheet backdrop, as well as on the band members themselves, creating a mixed media kaleidoscope that managed to excite the senses without overwhelming them –a balancing act that would prove Palmer a professional with the tightrope for the next 2+ hours.

To give a play-by-play of this performance would be like trying to explain a sunrise to a blind person, or the power of the electric guitar to the deaf.  I don’t mean this in the overly dramatic way you might think, it’s just to say there were so many moving parts that you had to be there to experience not only the entertainers, but also the entertained.  The choreographed stop-motion act that saw every member of Grand Theft (including Palmer) take a turn at every instrument during The Dresden Doll’s “Missed Me” was an amazing feat for musicians who had just ended an 18 hour bus ride from Austin, but the intermission in which a box full of handwritten confessions from the crowd started with regret at not speaking to a father in 3 years and ended with a positive HIV result brought a real sense of trust and community among strangers.

The soul bearing wasn’t left to the crowd either, with Palmer talking about her days as a stripper as if she were talking about what she had for lunch.  Bischoff stayed up until 3am the night before to pull a bassoon section for his set out of thin air, because he wasn’t going to let Boulder’s talent go to waste.  Palmer took the time to thank every one of the local artists, as well as every single person involved in this tour — including the poor girl who had to work the merch booth with a line which extended out into the street.  A shout out to DeVotchKa’s Red Rocks show with the Colorado Symphony, and a promise to “play within the rocks” someday, went well beyond the obligatory namedrop of just another stop along the road, leaving no doubt that every night on this tour really is a completely unique experience.

The setlist was compiled of mostly songs from Theatre Is Evil, but the long time fans were treated to “Astronaut” from Who Killed Amanda Palmer and “Missed Me” from The Dresden Dolls debut.  The cover of Yaz’s “In My Room” was completely upstaged by a 13 minute dissection of Wham!’s “Careless Whisper” — an experiment that saw a member of the audience being handed an electric guitar, Palmer stripping and stage diving, and more chaos than can be recollected 24 hours later.  It might have veered a little too far into jamband territory for my taste, and I think the time might have been better used on glaring exceptions “Girl Anachronism” and “Trout Heart Replica”, but that’s a small complaint about a show that never failed to blow away expectations of what a rock concert should be.  The jab at String Cheese Incident that followed was appreciated, if not by anyone else but me.

On a night when the passing of time was on the forefront of my mind, due to the loss of someone close to those close to me, Palmer’s comment about Kurt Cobain hit home.  Referencing the death of goth, something she (and many of her fans) held close during those dark schoolgirl years, she mentioned that Kurt Cobain’s suicide is now as far in the past as Jimi Hendrix’s demise was when she was high school.  Time does seem to move at a different speed in these adult years, and sometimes those close to us are gone way too fast, so on this night “Lost” was a small but welcome assurance that things will be ok…

“No one’s ever lost forever
They are caught inside your heart
If you garden them and water them
They make you what you are”

I came to this show an outsider.  I was a fan of The Dresden Dolls first album and hooked on Theatre Is Evil, but I did not source any of this material.  I didn’t even pay for my ticket to the show (it was comped by Palmer’s promotion team).  I knew I would like the music, but a part of me thought I might be turned off by the drama that came along with a live performance.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Saying this was ‘one of the best shows of the year’ is becoming a bit trite, so I’ll change it up a bit…this was THE most original, entertaining and moving event I have been to in recent memory.  I was set back down on the ground almost 24 hours ago and I am still forever changed.

Setlist:
Intro (instrumental)
Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen)
The Killing Type
Missed Me (The Dresden Dolls cover)
Want It Back
A Grand Theft Intermission
Astronaut
Grown Man Cry
Bottomfeeder
The Bed Song
In My Room (Yaz cover)
Berlin
Careless Whisper (Wham! cover)
Lost
Olly Olly Oxen Free

Leeds United

Setlist