Into the Pit: 137: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Live at Village Underground – 20-June 2012

Amanda Palmer has been big news of late, not for being dicked over by a record label, or for controversy over a video, or happening to be married to Neil Gaiman, but instead she is famous right now for the fact that she has mobilised her fans to a quite extraordinary degree. No musical kickstarter or similar has even come close to the level of funding of this, and it has to be wondered if this really is the push that this kind of independent music making needed, or whether AFP is a special case.

Special? Well, if you’ve ever been to one of her shows, or followed her various online antics, it isn’t hard to notice just how devoted her fans are (and yeah, so I’m probably one of them), and if so, well, the Kickstarter perhaps wasn’t all that surprising.

Which brings us to this gig. One of the first tangible signs of the new album, aside from a couple of songs having been played last time at Heaven, was the announcement of this tour, with additional “Art Show” gigs for certain levels of funders, the usual ninja gigs (which this time I missed!), and then shows like this. This one in particular sold out extremely quickly – as London shows often do.

Also like last time (and a few times before), it is also heartening to see AFP providing support slots not to random bands, but to artists she thinks we should hear more of, and could perhaps do with the exposure. And this was most certainly the case with opener Jherek Bischoff, who is bassist in her new band the Grand Theft Orchestra. Working with a locally sourced string quartet, his music was a series dramatic, instrumental movements that apparently on the album make use of a much larger orchestra. Not all of it hit the spot for me, but some of it was absolutely fantastic, and it is clear that Jherek is a seriously talented musician.

After that, it was one hell of an about turn to Andrew O’Neill. By his own admission, he is a cross-dressing (death)metalhead, who also happens to be an extremely funny and random stand-up comedian. His set covered all of these elements, but with few monologues lasting too long – there was always something else to go off on a tangent about. I’ve never laughed so much at Cannibal Corpse before, either.

All that laughter kept the mood positive for the appearance of Amanda Palmer, who as usual appeared in a spectacular stage outfit that was mostly discarded pretty quickly (I can understand why – it was warm enough in the crowd, never mind onstage). Rather more unusually, most of the onstage niceties and conversation with the crowd were discarded, instead AFP and her band dived quickly into new material. And an awful lot of it. I counted a total of nine new songs, some of which I’d heard live before, from forthcoming album Theatre is Evil, and these songs made up the bulk of the set.

The one thing these various new songs showed was the quality of the new material. Seriously – The Killing Type is a slow-burn to start with, but builds into a thunderous rhythm, stacked with eighties new wave references, and indeed this is something of a recurring theme. The biggest nod of all to this is in forthcoming single Want It Back, a monstrous, electro-pop song that with the additional interest in AFP of late, really, really should be a hit. Hear it once and you’ll be trying to get the chorus refrain out your head for weeks. It might have even dislodged Massachusetts Avenue from being my favourite of the new songs, which was easily the most immediate of the new ones last September, and was wisely kept for the home straight in this set, and judging on the way everyone was singing along here, I wasn’t the only one who loved it last time.

Although it felt like it to begin with, not all of the new songs are blistering, fast-paced tracks. The Bed Song, in a lovely new string-based arrangement, was fantastic, but the lengthy Trout Heart Replica was even better, a reflective piano-based ballad of the kind she has always been so good at, full of clever Wizard of Oz references and smart lyrics, but retaining a certain gravitas regardless.

Amanda Palmer setlist:
Do It With A Rockstar
The Killing Type
Missed Me
Trout Heart Replica
The Bed Song
Psycho (Leon Payne cover w/Neil Gaiman on vocals, w/Adrian Stout (The Tiger Lillies) on saw)
Half Jack
Last Christmas (interlude)
Total Control (The Motels cover)
Want It Back
Girl Anachronism
Massachusetts Avenue
Olly Olly Oxen Free

Leeds United

With so much new stuff aired, it was interesting what of the old stuff was played. No other AFP solo work got a look-in during the main set, but the full band arrangement did wonders for a few old Dresden Dolls tracks. Missed Me was glorious fun, with the band changing instruments after every verse and making it sound even more chaotic and enjoyable than ever, Half Jack was even more intense than usual, while Girl Anachronism was turned into the three-minute-punk-song that it had always threatened to be in the past

A long-held tradition of gigs involving AFP are the covers, and here we got two, of very different kinds. Neil Gaiman, as well as Adrian Stout from The Tiger Lillies, joined the band onstage for a run-through of a deeply odd, sixties blues ballad called Psycho. Neil Gaiman’s deadpan delivery worked brilliantly, of course. The other cover was one that had me wondering if it was a new AFP song, and turned out to be a cover of New Wavers The Motels track Total Control. Yep, more 80s new wave, and I was amused to find out the next day that my dad owned most of the albums by the band.

Anyway, by the end of the main set, while it had been a great gig, it didn’t quite feel like it had been so much of a show as previous ones. Here felt a bit more, well, workmanlike, getting on with the show rather than interacting too much with the crowd. Maybe it was time constraints, maybe it was a conscious decision. But it was certainly partly redeemed by the encore, with a searing blast through Astronaut (still my favourite AFP song by a long distance), before the entire backstage appeared to somehow squeeze onto the stage for a celebratory Leeds United, that seemed to not want to end, as it was teased out for that bit longer than usual.

Thinking about it, I wonder whether we are actually witnessing Amanda Palmer about to move up a level, to trade up from the mid-sized shows she consistently sells out and move onto much larger venues. The new songs have that glossy sheen and confidence that suggest she isn’t content to remain in her current position, and the reaction from her devoted fans to the new material was overwhelmingly positive. So, by this time next year, will we be seeing Amanda Palmer the pop star? I’d love to think so, and would so make a change to see an artist that truly interacts and understands her fans gain success her way rather than pandering to a music industry that is, ever, in thrall to nothing but the next short-term success.

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