Into The Pit: 202: Amanda Palmer – Union Chapel – 16-November 2017

I have been following Amanda Palmer – and her original band The Dresden Dolls – for a great deal longer than I thought. I remember stumbling across the latter band at a party we were hosting back in 2004, when a friend played me Coin-Operated Boy, and I was curious enough to go and get the album the following day. Since then, I’ve seen The Dresden Dolls once, and AFP…ten or eleven times. I’ve been to big shows, I’ve been to tiny, spur-of-the-moment shows in the street, and even one in a speakeasy that you got into behind a bookcase.

Into The Pit: 202:
Amanda Palmer

Jherek Bischoff

Union Chapel, N1
16-November 2017

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But I haven’t bothered so much in recent times, for a variety of reasons, but when I got a last minute ticket offer for this show, I thought, why not? It’s been a couple of years since I last did, and I rather love the Union Chapel as a venue. Needless to say, the sound in a church is always excellent, and it seems to bring out the best in every artist I see there.

AFP fans as they are, everyone, pretty much, was there early, and thus Jherek Bischoff played to a big and attentive crowd. I’ve now seen him perform live with Amanda Palmer a few times, and he remains an engaging, intriguing performer. Part of this is because he is some way from what I would usually go and see – while I have an interest in contemporary classical music, it’s not something I go out and search for as a general rule. What makes Bischoff interesting to me, though, is that he is approaching the concept from a different angle, as he has experience in more traditionally rock outlets, too, so at points the dynamics are different, especially.

Assisted by a string quartet backing his bass work, there were some really striking highlights. The Wolf, introduced by ominous, stabbing strings, is a masterwork of restraint and suspense, while the closing Cistern remains his most well-rounded piece, a stately, elegant piece that harks to some point in the past, but without overdoing the sentimentality. That said, the piece that he composed for no less than the Kronos Quartet was the star of the show for me, an appropriately complex, fast-paced piece that seems to overlay melody upon melody (and must be tough to play, too).

Bischoff and the accompanying string quartet had a busy night, as they were playing with Amanda Palmer for most of her set, too. So, not quite an evening with just Amanda Palmer, but she did perform solo for a few intriguing moments early on.

And one of those moments was for me the best part of the entire night. Back before she raised more money by way of Kickstarter than any musician before her, before raising a ton on Patreon too, AFP was simply another solo artist trying to make a name away from the band she founded, on a regular record label. Her alliance with Roadrunner went sour fast, but back in 2008, she had an exceptional debut solo album, that pointed at a bright, starry-eyed future.

A piece of history from that period was what opened the night. Ampersand has long been AFP’s best ballad, as far as I’m concerned, a howl of despair at separation and trying do things on her own terms, and here, even with the odd word or cue missed, it was obviously shivering with emotion coming to the surface, and reminded me straight off the bat why I’ve long-loved her work – she writes from the heart, a naked, jagged emotional outburst that can be seen in negative lights by some.

The other great thing about her shows is the variety. No two shows have ever been the same – there is a rotating cast of supporting musicians, for a start, and her ever-growing body of work means that there is always something new to showcase, too. And this was very much the case at this show.

Her Patreon, that as above is really quite well supported, was mentioned a tiring number of times across the evening, to be frank, but it does seem to be resulting in an interesting way of writing songs that see supporting fans able to her the evolution of songs as they start from demos. I’ll be honest – not all of the new songs from this writing method hit the mark, but some were great.

Drowning In The Sound, a song inspired by the furore that erupted from a remark made about Taylor Swift, was an entertaining throwaway, as was a bitter tirade aimed at Donald Trump (Small Hands, Small Heart, although that seems a far too easy target), while the hyped-up live debut of Mother (with a video that is likely to gain more notice than the song) was for me rather dull, but then, I can’t stand Pink Floyd.

Amanda Palmer setlist

Drowning In The Sound
The Killing Type
Missed Me (The Dresden Dolls song)
Psycho (Leon Payne cover) (with Neil Gaiman)
Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen cover)
In Harms Way
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie cover)
Space Oddity (David Bowie cover)
Small Hands, Small Heart
Mother (Pink Floyd cover)
Runs In The Family
The Ride

What a Wonderful World (Louis Armstrong cover)

Much better was her reaction to joining refugee charities in the Mediterranean and seeing their work – and what is happening – firsthand. In Harms Way was an exceptional, striking song that smartly expressed Palmer’s horror at what she saw, and as she explained before playing it, how helpless she feels as anti-immigrant (and -refugee) sentiment seems to fester and grow by the day. The closing The Ride was also an interesting concept, trying to distil down the fears of 1,000+ respondents to a question about said fears into a song. It didn’t half go on a bit, but it was certainly different.

There were of course other covers, too, and I’d not heard any of them live before at previous dates. Her take on Everybody Knows was a stripped back, string-assisted take that she sung standing on a pew in the heart of the crowd, and was frankly brilliant, while the twin Bowie covers were better than I feared. Particularly Ashes to Ashes, my favourite Bowie song of all, and one of those songs that I try and avoid any covers of because the original is just so damned perfect. But it was obviously sung by someone who knew the song so intimately, and that feeling came shining through. Space Oddity, though, seems to be a song that is difficult to stamp any originality on – everyone seems to have covered it along the way.

Neil Gaiman made his customary appearance, of course, deadpanning his way through the gloriously odd sixties-murder ballad Psycho (and thankfully the only time the damned ukelele came out, too), a cover I’ll never get tired of, and the one Dresden Dolls song was also aired – in the form of a new string-based arrangement of Missed Me, which worked surprisingly well, and had some fun accompaniment from four women plucked out of the crowd to play an inflatable, noisy pig toy at appropriate moments.

This was a lengthy show. Just over two hours with barely a break, a fair amount of chat between songs, and an intriguing mix of songs, that perhaps ran out of a steam somewhat in the latter half as the new songs all piled up together. But that said, with such a variety on show – old, new, covers, guest appearances – you may get a whole host of differing viewpoints on how that show was.

For me? After a few years away from seeing AFP live – and not seeing the friends I’ve made from the community of fans at the shows – it was lovely to be back in the mix. I won’t be leaving it so long next time.

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