Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra at Northcote: a grand finale

amanda palmer and grand theft orchestra posterThe Northcote Social Club was packed on Monday night for the last of five gigs by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, and what a sweaty little box that venue is. But the sound was on the money and if elbows in the chest and a stage seen past bobbing heads counts as intimate, then this was it.

The purpose of the band’s string of low-brow gigs was to road test material for an album, which begins recording in Melbourne this week. Today, in fact. And it promises to be a most enjoyable record indeed.

Palmer has assembled three multi-instrumentalists (Jherek Bischoff – mostly bass, Michael McQuilken – mostly drums, Chad Raines – mostly guitars and synthesiser, and trumpet and vox too), who share a joyous rapport on stage. It’s great to see a collective of musos enjoying themselves, playing for the fun, interacting, teasing and laughing. A Palmer gig is often a rambunctious affair, and this was no exception. There was even birthday cake for the mostly drummer, and a ukulele present that was broken in immediately. Kudos!

The new material, mostly upbeat and groovy, shows an expansion of style leaning on an ’80s sensibility — and synthesiser — in addition to more typical staccato Palmer delivery. There was some gorgeous phrasing, excellent harmony work, exquisite changes of mood and tempo. There was a ‘My Sharona’ lift, traces of Siouxsie Sioux and Martha Davis and, if the crowd is to be believed, The Cars, though I wasn’t quite convinced on that score. Happy beats and sombre ballads. And a big blast of brass.

Monday night’s finale — sadly, the train timetable meant we had to eschew the encore — included an appearance by near-nekkid performance artists, an opening slot filled with so much aplomb by Die Roten Punkte (so versatile, this duo, playing punk, pop, silly ditties and Krautrock — catch them at the Spiegeltent!) and a superb vocal guest spot by Bauhaus’s David J (who DJs at Cabaret Nocturne on Friday).


Dresden Dolls rock the house in Melbourne

band dresden dolls

The Forum is probably still shaking. The Dresden Dolls put out one hell of a lot of bass for a two-piece. With Amanda Palmer on keyboards and vocals and Brian Viglione on drums and guitar, the venerable Melbourne venue was both shaken and stirred.

It was a sell-out crowd, last night’s gig, and it was given its money’s worth. Melbourne bands the Jane Austen Argument and The Bedroom Philosopher provided support, and the Dolls played for the best part of two hours, right up to the witching hour, with two encores. Palmer crowd surfed her way to the stage at one point; Viglione was on stage chatting as we left after the house lights came on: nothing like a little hands on.

Viglione impressed behind the drums, using the instrument as a prop for his animated performance. He and Palmer worked off each other brilliantly, she in black bra on one side of the stage, he shirtless with bowler hat on the other. Indefatigable and unpretentious in his actual playing, Viglione’s talent and appeal is obvious, even if the recently quiet Dolls have been a tad overshadowed by Palmer’s solo cult.

There were canonical Dolls tunes including ‘Coin-Operated Boy’, ‘Missed Me’ and ‘Girl Anachronism’, brilliantly rendered live, and covers including ‘Mercy Seat’, ‘Two-Headed Boy’ and ‘War Pigs’ and an all-in cacophonous ‘You Got to Fight for Your Right to Party’.

A highlight — one that gave me a genuine frisson — was ‘Delilah’, with JAA’s Jen Kingwell singing counterpoint to Palmer. For so many verses, Jen stood quiet in the spotlight, and then, pow, she nailed that first high note, and never looked back. Judging by the screams from the crowd, I wasn’t the only one affected. Back in October, in San Diego, Palmer had JAA’s Tom Dickins sing the part, and it was likewise sensational. The duo just keep getting more polished, more confident, and last night I heard more in Dickins’s lower register, some real growl — what a voice! Last night, on ‘Delilah’, Kingwell showed her mettle, too. Stand back for their first single — a bold choice, this one — when it’s released later this month.

Amanda Palmer in San Diego, and three cheers for the Jane Austen Argument

amanda palmer san diego concert poster

So back in October, which was only last month but feels like years ago, we ducked out of the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego to hit the gorgeous Birch Park North Theatre (it’s a lot lovelier and older and genteel than it sounds) to take in a show by the always entertaining Amanda Palmer.

As good as she was, largely arranging her set list by audience request and running a tighter show than usual, the night was made truly superb by the most excellent support bands: San Diego’s London Below and Melbourne’s Jane Austen Argument.

London Below, aka Tragic Tantrum, were a gothed up bunch made awesome by the operatic range and presence of their lead singer, Zoe Tantrum. They plumb the waters of ‘dark cabaret’, in the queue with the Dresden Dolls and Emilie Autumn and such, but distinctive enough to hold their own ground.

But the big buzz of the night was the Aussie duo, Jane Austen Argument, who have supported Palmer in Australia and popped down for the San Diego from Seattle, where they were recording their debut studio album, Somewhere Under the Rainbow, due out early next year.

Their first tune was met with silence. Then, from the front, a guy said, ‘wow’, and the room erupted, and kept erupting. To judge by the response, both to their set and then to a trio of songs during Palmer’s set, and then the throng still gathered around them as we left after the final curtain, the duo scored a theatre of fans.

They’re a fetching, modest act, with Jen Kingwell on keys and vocals and Tom Dickins holding centre stage with his amazing voice. Material played on the night suggests Somewhere Under the Rainbow is going to be a blinder.

That was then, this is later: the Dresden Dolls are touring in January, and on another musical matter of much excitement here, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde fame is playing the Spiegeltent in Melbourne in March. I’m hoping for plenty of material from her awesome solo album, Scarred. The Blonde have recently posted new singles at CD Baby… wonderful stuff.

Tragic Tantrum, ‘Only With You’

Writerly round-up, including the Big Sleep I’ve just had and the one I’m about to…

the big sleep by raymond chandlerI recently read The Big Sleep. Unfortunately, I’d recently watched the movie, too, so my head is filled with Bogie doing his thing. Unlikeable hero, much? I enjoyed the book, some laugh-out-loud sass, lovely attention to detail, awesome metaphors. Sadly, despite these and other inspirational viewings, I still don’t have more than one scene for the paranormal noir short story I’m trying to write — I do wish the hero would just decide what they want to be and roll with it. Maybe if I try harder to talk like Bogart. OR Bacall… I just dunno.

I’ve also recently read Glenda Larke’s The Stormlord’s Exile — the Aussie cover is by Vincent Chong, who cleaned up at the recent (controversial) British Fantasy Awards. It was an enjoyable end to the series, adding new scenery to the already beautifully sketched world of the Quartern. Respect one another and respect the planet might be the dual themes.

Elsewhere, I’ve been drawing sustenance from Ian Irvine’s blog — I can’t recommend enough his one-page guide to storytelling; it’s a handy little checklist to keep by that nagging chapter rundown spreadsheet. Ian has also updated — or rather, is in the process of updating — his virtually seminal discussion of the Truth About Publishing — it’s worth catching up with.

Louise Cusack has been making the most of a storm to really get into the zone with her characters. This again makes me think of Glenda’s book and how important the weather is, and how much of an old Goth I am, throwing thunderstorms around for dramatic effect — and then using the contrast of a blue, bright day to do the same. Seriously, UV IS bad for you. (LOL)

The zone also came to the fore when I read this piece from Dmetri Kakmi, in particular this line:

“When the individual returns to the mundane, he sees reality as ‘repellent’.”

He’s talking about Nietzsche and Hamlet, but it sounds like a writer coming out of long spell “in the zone” to me!

I’ve had to live vicariously through Narrelle M Harris’s account of SheKilda — that’s a great pun, I can’t believe only now as I typed it that I fully got it; damn, I must be tired. I ditto what she says about finding inspiration at conventions.

amanda palmer san diego concert posterWhich is my segue for the rest I’m about to have. Sure, the paying job seems determined to bite at my heels for part of the journey, but for the most part, it’s downtime in some of my favourite places in the world with, as luck would have it, a couple of my favourite in the world. Life is good. And there will be convention goodness, thanks to World Fantasy in San Diego. It’s a bit of Gaiman Con this year, we’re told, with added Amanda Palmer — all good — and it’ll be ace to soak up the vibe and maybe make a pal or two. I’m taking a big bag, so I can finally break the moratorium on fun stuff when I hit the dealers’ room. I wonder if I can read Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book before I get there? Will it put me over my weight allowance? Is this another reason to buy an e-reader, and if so, which one?

But first, there’ll be sleeping. It’s been a long couple of weeks, but that burr in the saddle that pays the bills notwithstanding, the to do list is looking pretty clean right about now. One of the things I love about being on the road is being the hell away from the interwebs. This compulsion to be plugged in and engaged can be damn tiring, damn distracting. It’ll be nice to have a rest, even if there’s always a persistent niggle that the world has taken a step to the left without me knowing. Anyhoo, it’s R&R time. Wake me up when we get there, and let me know what I’ve missed.

(It’s worth waiting for the guitar solo!)

Amanda Palmer, roamin’ at the Forum

Back to back Amanda Palmer aka how sore are my feet? A little tenderness in the soles is well worth the effort of standing through performances by AFP, especially when she’s backed up by such splendid talent.

It’s a real cabaret atmosphere, with Palmer the centre of attention for the cultish fans: hence the non-stop murmur of conversation and bint-twittering throughout the rest of the gig. The inane shout-outs were saved for AFP: you know you’re old when you want to get to a gig that starts on time, where the crowd doesn’t squish you, where you can listen and watch and be a part of the performance without being a party to someone else’s casual chat.

But don’t let the grumblings of an old fart put you off, nor give you a false impression: last night’s gig rocked, and Melbourne’s Forum theatre, with its peeling walls, faux Roman architecture and star-studded twilight-blue sky, was the ideal backdrop for this kind of controlled mayhem. (Can’t wait to see Gary Numan tear it up!)

In fact, this was perhaps the most orderly show I’ve seen of AFP’s, though it wasn’t a regular rock gig, oh no (never!). Guests kept coming back; having played their own couple of tunes, they’d pop back to duet a bit later on. The Tin Stars, with Mikelangelo up front, provided the bulk of the backing — very sharp — after they held the main support slot, with the dashing Kim Boekbinder, the divine Jane Austen Argument and Jason Webley all contributing wee sets. With Webley in the house, it was always on the cards that Evelyn Evelyn would make an appearance — just the one song tonight. The line-up showed much parallel with AFP’s Opera House gig on Australia Day and Webley’s Fitzroy show on Friday night, but it ran to a much tighter schedule with changeovers quite quick. The atmosphere was always relaxed and comfortable, though there were sombre moments: a collection for Christchurch quake survivors (the Australian Red Cross is taking donations) and an echo of Oz Day with a rendition of The Drover’s Boy.

AFP began the night topless in safety harness atop the theatre staging with a quiet ukulele number (Makin’ Whoopee) before doing a slow quick-change on stage — Aussie and Kiwi flags prominent — to get the show on the road. An all-in encore, complete with strip-teasing koalas, of Map of Tasmania and Leeds United — earlier, Coin Operated Boy (and a promise of a possible Dresden Dolls tour Down Under) and Oasis were among the crowd pleasers in a set drawing heavily from the Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under album — led to another, a repeat of the previous night’s drinking song. As AFP remarked, you know it’s been a good night when the stage is littered with headless koalas, women’s clothing and beer.

We could all drink to that.

Evelyn Evelyn at the Evelyn, with friends

A late start to the morning, now listening to Kim Boekbinder’s The Impossible Girl album hot off the merch stand at last night’s gig at The Evelyn Hotel in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, and again feeling really sorry for her that last night’s late start resulted in her set being reduced to two songs.

Boekbinder, who does wonderful things with loops and squeeze-squeak plastic crocodiles when she’s not simply enthralling with insightful snippets of love and life, backs up tonight and tomorrow, and is hanging in Oz for a while, apparently. Her album shows a wide range of musical styles and some quirky stuff to leaven the heartbreak and acerbic observations. Catch her if you can.

The reason for last night’s foray was Evelyn Evelyn, a concept act put together by Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley. Webley was headlining last night’s bill, which also featured the intriguing Jane Austen Argument (although it was only Tom last night, with support from guitarist-singer Gemma O’Connor whose voice was sensational).

It’s an amazing line-up of talent for a pub gig.

The conceit for the Evelyns is that they are conjoined twins: Palmer and Webely sharing a suit, the illusion given a delightful touch of the absurb by Webley’s beard (the other one should grow a beard, he reckons, to much LOLing). The Evelyns were much fun, though the theatrics did drag out the set a tad — moments of too little happening stretching an uncomfortably crowded room’s attention span, allowing the bar chatter to rise. I couldn’t see much of them when they were playing the keyboards, a hand a’piece and brilliantly clever, ripping out a cover of Lean on Me that was a highlight of the night.

They juggled an accordion, a guitar and then — with a sly wink to a third hand — Amanda’s trademark ukulele, and then did a bit of improv word-by-word Q&A with the audience.

Later, when Webley, ripping through Gypsy-ish accordion tunes (fave: Dance While the Sky Crashes Down), called Amanda back for some duets, the rapport between the two was centre stage. As was the rapport between Amanda and the audience; she strikes me as a natural cabaret star — the cellar kind, not the Vegas kind.

The gig dragged on a bit, given the crowding, the malfunction of Webley’s guitar undercutting his set, and the night stretching out past 1am, but you’d be hard-pressed to get better bang for your buck than this line-up offered.

Amanda Palmer does Australia Day in Sydney, 2011

Amanda Fucking Palmer just keeps getting better.

AFP, of Dresden Dolls fame and now carving out a solo career, held court at a packed Sydney Opera House on Wednesday night. It was a precursor to her Down Under tour. But this was special.

For starters, there was an Aussie touch on stage: a Hills hoist and a barbie and an Esky of VB: the booze was rightfully derided as being piss poor, but the cartons did make a fetching backdrop, used as they were to spell out a mighty AFP.

There was a striking voice and piano courtesy of the Melbourne duo The Jane Austen Argument (playing support on AFP’s tour), and rollicking Gypsy-ish fun with Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. The latter provided backing for AFP on a bunch of numbers during the night, showing a high degree of charm, humour and flexibility — one member played piano accordion, sax, organ and electric guitar. And there was a big-screen appearance from Meow Meow and, in the flesh, Kim Boekbinder (also touring with AFP, and author of the gorgeous New Orleans themed tune Big Easy).

And then there was Neil Gaiman, who read a yarn he penned to accompany Amanda’s Who Killed… book, the project that brought them together, and then a poem he’d penned in Hyde Park for Australia Day about our lost megafauna, and then a poem for Amanda.

And then of course there was AFP herself, cavorting with the crowd in her Union Jack corset like a charming and chaotic ringmaster, set list forsaken, band slightly shaken, snags cooked on a barbie, smoochings in the crowd and, in essence, damned good fun.

There were tunes from her new album and some crowd favourites, some silly fun ones and some that were somewhat more serious, and others simply beautiful: a ballad called The Drover’s Boy, just reminding us that the colonisation of this continent that was being celebrated that day had come at a cost to the indigenous inhabitants, and then the concert closer, Nick Cave’s The Ship Song, sung from the balcony.

A raucous encore featuring an all-in rendition of Map of Tasmania and Oasis, complete with glittering gogo dancers, sent the crowd buzzing out the doors after three hours of musical mayhem. The bridge arced over the harbour, mist hugged the skyscrapers, the black-clad tide disappeared into the Sydney streets.

And not an Oi Oi Oi to be heard.