Into the Pit: 151: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Live at KOKO – 23-October 2012

Amanda Palmer has been in the music news (and beyond) a lot this year, after smashing all kinds of records in terms of raising money by “crowdsourcing”, if you will, for her new album and tour, with all kinds of rewards on offer for those who wanted to offer more money than others, including sumptious art books, book-like packaging for CDs, loads of other bits and pieces, and even private gigs for small groups of people (of which one of those I’m signed up to, which should happen over the next year or so, as far as I’m aware).

Amanda Palmer
Live @ KOKO, London NW1
23 October 2012

This massive groundswell of support has not come out of nowhere. Her previous band – as aside from the odd reunion gig, it appears increasingly clear that she won’t be returning to recording with Brian Viglione as The Dresden Dolls any time soon, if ever (and more’s the pity) – were one of those bands that gained an awful lot of extremely dedicated fans, and most if not all of them stuck with her when she went solo, and those numbers have only swollen since. And yes, my girlfriend and I have been two of those dedicated fans, although not perhaps to the level of fandom of some. Even so, we’ve attended (at last count) nine shows now, six of them in London in the past three years.

The reason why we attend so many? Well, the fact is that her live shows are so frequently a case of “expect the unexpected”. Reworks of existing songs, radically different sets, guest appearances, random fun elements that make them so entertaining. However, the last show – at the Village Underground in June – seemed a little less of a show and more of a showcase for new material, such was the extent of the set concentrating on that and shoving aside the past.

So as thrilling as The Killing Type and Want It Back are, I was a little disheartened to find much of the opening portion of this set to be broadly similar to last time, even to the airing of (now very) old favourite Missed Me with the now apparently normal switching of instruments during the song like a game of musical chairs. The opening blast was completed by a joyous, skyscraping Astronaut, after which, things went inexplicably flat.

And this was down, squarely, to the choice of songs. It was revealed later – thanks to a tweet – that Amanda Palmer had received news of the death of a friend back home in the hours before the gig, which may have had something to do with some of the lacklustre nature of the middle section, but that doesn’t change the fact that playing four lengthy ballads back-to-back, with an even longer-seeming section of reading out various submissions from gig-goers of their worst moments (no, really) before one of them.

Ok, so on record The Bed Song is wonderful, a desperately sad tale of what happens when love really does become everlasting, but on stage it is so long and emotionally draining that putting it back-to-back with the equally lengthy – and introspective – Trout Heart Replica, it all started to feel rather self-indulgent. Add to that the airing of the faux-eighties-soul (and just as dull as the songs that influenced it) of Grown Man Cry, an apparently never-ending Bottomfeeder that was only livened up by Amanda’s crowdsurfing in an enormous dress, and worst of all for the indulgences, airing a song from the drummer’s side-project (followed by an obscure cover) that completed the sucking of the life out of the set, and for a number of people, was the point where they chose to leave.

AFP setlist:
Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)
The Killing Type
Missed Me
Want It Back
Grown Man Cry
The Bed Song
Trout Heart Replica
MAGICFUTUREBOX (The Few Moments cover)
In My Room (Yazoo cover)
Letter From God to Man (Dan le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip cover) (with Scroobius Pip)
Careless Whisper (George Michael cover)
Psycho (Leon Payne cover) (with Neil Gaiman)
The Time Warp (with Richard O’Brien)
Girl Anachronism
Want It Back (From the balcony backed by the audience)

My girlfriend turned to me at this point and noted this was the first time she’d ever been bored at an AFP gig, and I had to agree. However, it really is a good thing that we chose to stick around, as things did get better.

And this was, admittedly, assisted greatly by a number of covers and quite astonishing guest appearances. Where to start? How about Scroobius Pip joining the band to perform a rendition of Letter From God to Man? Or a deeply cheesy-and-unrepentent-for-it cover of Careless Whisper? Or getting Neil Gaiman and Adrian Stout back to do Psycho again? Or how about topping all of these, and probably any guest appearance AFP will ever get, by managing to get Richard O’Brien to join the band onstage and perform a riotous The Time Warp? (And happily, someone has assisted with providing proof that I didn’t imagine the whole bonkers four minutes)

Needless to say, the whole venue was buzzing again after this – and it was already going on half-eleven by this point. Even so, there was still time to squeeze in a hyperspeed, thrilling take on Girl Anachronism, and reprise Want It Back from the balcony, a capella.

But still, as great as the (lengthy) finale was, I couldn’t help thinking that this was by no means the best show I’ve seen from AFP. In fact, all told it was probably the weakest show I’ve seen, purely by virtue of the fact that this was the first time where we actually found ourselves bored, even for a short while. The new album is also patchy, to be honest – with far more filler than necessary, and playing that filler rather than the stronger songs from the album perhaps serves to suggest sets for future shows need a rethink.

Finally, to paraphrase Scroobius Pip from his first single: “Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra: Just A Band”. Even the greatest of live acts can have an off night. They are only human, after all.

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