For once, we got our timing spot on – literally as we walked through the door into the venue, first support Jason Webley was just starting up. Not a lot to watch, or so we thought – initially it was just Jason and his accordion (and later his acoustic guitar). As the first few songs passed by, it became very clear that he was rather more interesting that first appearances suggested. At some points, we were half-expecting all of Gogol Bordello to leap onstage and kick off a huge party onstage (it was that kind of set, and that kind of sound), but instead we were treated to songs that ambled somewhere, were stopped halfway for crowd interaction, then continued somewhere else, elements of great humour and standup, and then finally a chaotic drinking song that had the whole crowd spinning on the spot, watching their raised right index finger. Perhaps you had to be there, but the rapturous reception afforded him as he left the stage was well deserved.
Zoë Keating didn’t quite get the same reception, but then her set was very different. A solo cellist, technically she appeared to be extraordinarily adept and her own compositions seemed to my untrained ear to be pretty damned good. One interesting way of getting an unfamiliar audience onside – open with a cover of “a rock song”. It took us a while to work out what it was, but as the chorus kicked in we finally realised that it was Muse’s Time Is Running Out…
And after the supports, we had a short while to wait before Amanda Palmer herself came onstage. Indeed, our wait for her to appear was that little bit longer, as an indicator of what was to come we first had a set-piece by The Danger Ensemble, all based around the idea of a funeral for Amanda (the album is called Who Killed Amanda Palmer, after all), and as the funereal intro music continued, the group carried out a veiled Amanda, before then carrying her to her seat behind her keyboard (she broke her foot in Belfast last week!), at which point the veil was thrown back and we were thrown straight into a glorious Astronaut. Much to our surprise, there was little in the way of banter, or even hellos, for the first few songs – all of which were drawn from the new solo album. Things started to pick up somewhat, atmosphere-wise, as she dug into the now-seemingly-extensive Dresden Dolls back-catalogue, and indeed she played a surprisingly large number of songs from her band, and less than I would have expected from the new album.
Amanda Palmer Setlist:
Intro [Funeral Requiem]
Strength Through Music
“Ask Amanda” Interlude
I Google You
Coin Operated Boy
Have To Drive
Livin’ On A Prayer
Going on other setlists that have I seen, though, it does appear that there is an element of making the setlist up as she goes along. There are clearly some highly choreographed parts to the set, which worked exceptionally well, though – the reading out of names of victims of high-school shootings in the US prior to Strength Through Music, for example, which added a certain gravitas to a track that had appeared to me at first listen to be somewhat slight. However, like so many songs that Amanda Palmer has written, it’s only when you pay attention to the lyrics that they come alive. Even better was, like on the album, the follow straight afterwards into the joyous centrepiece of Guitar Hero, complete with some quite ridiculously great stage performance involving air guitar, miming, and everything being totally over the top. In other words, exactly as it should be. In a perfect world, this track will be a huge pop hit, and fully deserves to be.
We even got something of an intermission, in the form of “Ask Amanda”. By the merch stall, there was a gold-coloured box, with pens and paper next to it, and encouragement to ask Amanda a question. What we didn’t expect was that she would answer a handful of them on stage! She got somewhat distracted on some answers, of course, and it appears she managed to eat into the time she had to actually play songs! Still, it was damned entertaining, and indeed her track after this had the lyrics written by Neil Gaiman – as she put it, the idea of an updated smoky, lounge bar song, entitled I Google You. It was marvellous, and all a little strange…
And as if the set hadn’t reached some ridiculous heights already, there were even more to come. The first was Coin Operated Boy, a song that we didn’t expect to hear, and really didn’t think that it would work without Brian. Somehow, though, it did, but in a very different way, and again leaned heavily on The Danger Ensemble to provide a very funny stage (and sometimes into the audience) show. Even better, astonishingly, was the extraordinary closing track Half Jack – another DD song given an entirely new arrangement. Not introduced to start with, nearly half of the already lengthy track was played instrumentally, with Amanda accompanied by cellist Zoe Keating and a violin player (whose name totally escapes me) all bathed in blue light. And then, just as we thought we weren’t going to get the actual song, Amanda went back to the start without missing a beat and did the whole thing, and it was perhaps even better than when it closed the DD gig we saw in 2006.
There were two last surprises in store. One was what appeared to be a last hurrah, and everyone onstage did a very funny dance-off and farewell to Umbrella. Yes, that ubiquitous track… And then, the encore brought Jason Webley and Zoë Keating back on, to do a really quite surreal cover of Livin’ On A Prayer, that had the whole crowd bellowing along for the chorus at least. A suitably surreal end to a gig that I’m going to find hard to top in the rest of 2008…