Into the Pit: 107: Amanda Palmer – Live at Heaven – 02-September 2011

Like so many Amanda Palmer/Dresden Dolls fans, I’m no stranger to seeing her live – this was my fifth time (one Dresden Dolls show, two full AFP shows, and two “ninja” gigs), with a sixth time coming on Monday in the unusual settings of the British Library. But all of the previous shows I’ve seen, while all brilliantly entertaining (and more than a bit random at points), none of them have been one of the fabled “shows”, as opposed to a normal gig. I think it is safe to say that Friday nights show definitely fell into the category of “show”. There were guest appearances aplenty, including a couple of big surprises, dancing silliness, covers, old songs, new songs, and no end of audience interaction.

Amanda Palmer
Bitter Ruin and The Jane Austen Argument
Live @ Heaven, London WC2
02 September 2011

Sadly, however, there was a very early finish (by 2200, we were pretty much out of the venue) – a necessary occurrence when attending a gig at a club venue – and what were frankly insanely short support sets, seemingly unavoidable due to the early finish (and early start, too). A note to promoters, though – please, please post something resembling accurate set-time information online, if you are going to bother at all – particularly if the doors time is pulled forward by an hour from that on the ticket. Even us as punters could tell that those that were posted were totally wrong, it ended up being a lucky guess as to the time that we turned up.

Anyway, the short support sets were definitely worth the effort of getting there early. The Jane Austen Argument, recently featured on one of the standouts of Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, had an enthralling fifteen minutes that I really wasn’t expecting to like as much as I did. They describe themselves as “cabaret noir”, and it is difficult to disagree. Just an angel-voiced vocalist in Tom Dickens, with a pianist (and singer in Jen Kingwell), they clearly deserve a wider and bigger audience for their tender and flamboyant songs, although pick of the bunch was the rather wonderful Under The Rainbow, a song about Tom’s influences and his parents (who apparently met while both performing in a stage production of The Wizard of Oz!), and stuffed with clever references to parts of the famous story.

Bitter Ruin were as equally deserving of more time to weave their magic. Again a two-piece, but rather different. Dark, bitter, twisted acoustic songs, with vocalist Georgia coming across as having a rather icy demeanour, but prone to unexpected outbursts of searing emotion mid-song that really do make them quite an extraordinary live act to watch. Forthcoming single Trust is striking enough (video here, if this doesn’t get them a wider audience, I don’t know what will), then there was the barely restrained fury of The Vice, where Georgia lets rip with her incredible vocal range, and Ben provides the bedrock of the song, a song seemingly about pushing the wrong buttons of a lover or partner. But the most notable part of the short set was Chewing Gum – where Georgia seems to channel the power of Diamanda Galas to astonishing effect. They are playing in London later in the month, but is (not surprisingly, now I think about it), already sold out.

Despite the seemingly optimistic set-times, everything remarkably ran to time, so by about 1945, Amanda Palmer was onstage and good to go. And from the start, it appeared that we were going to get at least a partly-played straight AFP gig. So the first six songs or so were long-time favourites from across her career, including notably the only three Dresden Dolls songs of the night. And finally, after five shows and various reasons for thwarting it in the past (mainly down to band injuries!), I have at long last heard the piano-rock-drums-carnage of Girl Anachronism live, and it was every bit as nuts as I had always hoped. Just as much fun was Missed Me, featuring no end of playfulness as the end-verse flourishes went all over the place. I also have to admit that I never really got into the Radiohead covers EP, so it was nice to hear the one track from there that I really felt worked in Idioteque (and even better to hear AFP refuse a request for Creep later on…).

The first sign that this wasn’t going to be a normal show was when the guests started arriving onstage. So there was Bitter Ruin joining the band onstage for a truly spine-chilling rendition of Delilah (far beyond the album version, and frankly any other version I’ve seen performed live), Neil Gaiman (!) providing spoken-word vocals to an amusing song about Joan of Arc (from the 8in8 song project that I’d kinda forgotten about), and then The Jane Austen Argument assisting with a cover of a quite lovely Regina Spektor song. I really should actually get ’round to listening to her stuff properly sometime, and this might actually have reminded me to do so.

Amanda Palmer Setlist:
Set One:
Astronaut: A Short History Of Nearly Nothing
Girl Anachronism
Missed Me
Idioteque [Radiohead]
Guitar Hero
Delilah [feat. Bitter Ruin]
The Problem With Saints [feat. Neil Gaiman]
The Flowers [Regina Spektor, feat. The Jane Austen Argument]Interlude:
Super Kate’s dance warmup
You Wanna Be Starting Something [Michael Jackson]
The Safety Dance [Men Without Hats]

Set Two:
Given It Away
Massachusetts Avenue
All The People You Will Never Be
Never Tear Us Apart [INXS]
Runs In The Family

You Grew On Me [performed by Tim Minchin]
Map Of Tasmania
In My Mind
Glad To Be Gay [performed by Tom Robinson]
No More Risky Business [performed by Tom Robinson]
Don’t You Forget About Me [Simple Minds]
Leeds United

Things really got strange with Super-Kate’s dance workout – complete with lyrca outfits onstage, apparently to get us ready to dance and get moving. It certainly made an already raucous crowd that bit louder, but also meant that the no-less-than-four new songs played were enjoyed by a crowd actually willing to listen to them – something that doesn’t always happen. But then, I think its pretty damned clear by now that fans of AFP (and The Dresden Dolls) are not like most other bands’ fans. Clearly hugely dedicated, and happy to lap up any music that is released, and crucially rather happy to actually purchase the music and come to the shows (I don’t recall seeing an AFP gig in the listings that hasn’t sold out for some considerable time now). Of those new songs, I think it is fair to say that some of them didn’t grab me immediately, but the one that is clearly worthy of note, and will be a standout on whatever release it eventually appears on, is the uptempo Massachusetts Avenue. Probably one of the strongest AFP songs I’ve ever heard, the fact that the crowd seemed to be singing along by the end suggested that I wasn’t the only one who thought this.

Another cover (an INXS song I honestly couldn’t remember at the time, but now I’ve listened to it, I know it now. Not a band I listened to much when I was younger, I have to admit), and some big singalongs later (a hyperactive Runs In The Family and the entire venue singing and clapping along-in-time to Oasis, and that was the end of the set. And here was where things got seriously nuts.

AFP had promised guests, and she wasn’t fucking kidding: Tim Minchin performed one of his songs (great to see this, as I’ve still not got ’round to seeing him live yet), and then one-upped that with the appearance of Tom Robinson! An appropriate choice considering the venue, and it was to no-one’s great surprise that one of the songs he played – with the entire backstage posse onstage to help, and god-knows-how-many hundreds of people in the crowd providing backing vocals – was Glad to Be Gay. The new song was pretty amusing, too, and suggests that even after all these years, he hasn’t lost his political ire.

Remarkably, we still weren’t done – there was time for a blistering, roof-raising finale, in the form of a cover of Don’t You (Forget About Me) that has resulted in the damned song being in my head all weekend since, and then a chaotic, jubliant Leeds United with added assistance of a horn section down in the crowd, and once again the backing vocals of hundreds.

Well beyond two hours of a show, and what a show. Even various set staples missing was no problem (most notably Coin-Operated Boy), simply as the whole thing was so much fun. This is what live music should be about – spontaneous, clever and most of all fun. Going to gigs is not cheap these days, and sets like this make it a pleasure to go along for. An artist who realises that being different and taking risks is part of the way of keeping fans interested, and engaging with her fans too.

Somehow AFP remains the most famous artist many people have never heard of, despite selling out large shows just about everywhere, and having various famous collaborators and friends who help to push the message out. Not having a record label appears not to be a hindrance – after all, it has already been proved that one label at least had absolutely no idea of how to promote her music – but I can’t help but feel that the music, and the shows, deserve so much more of a wider fanbase that is already the case.

On the flipside, though – and on a slightly selfish personal level – a bigger fanbase would simply make it harder for me to get tickets to her shows, something that can be difficult enough already. Roll on Monday and another show, which I’m sure will be very different to this…

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