Amanda Palmer @ The Henry Fonda Theatre

By: Hunter M. Daniels

Amanda Palmer @ The Henry Fonda Theatre
Photo: courtesy of the band
Amanda Palmer

Posted: Jan. 5, 2009 – Los Angeles, US

As the lights went down Tuesday at the Henry Fonda Theater in Los Angeles, an anachronistically dressed British man walked to the center of the stage to announce, "Amanda Fucking Palmer is dead." Later, Neil Gaiman would repeat this claim in a delectably macabre poem recounting all of the various ways the singer/songwriter could have met her end. It was all a farce, of course, complete with a set of Clue-inspired game cards given out to those who braved the cold to stand on line, but disturbing nonetheless.

And that uneasy balance of sincerity and the aloof is exactly what makes Palmer one of the most compelling voices in modern music. With lyrics ranging from dystopian fantasies of global warming as a metaphor for broken hearts to jaunty little tunes about teenage abortion, Palmer holds her audience rapt, taking one from squirming in the seat to smiling from ear to ear and back over the course of a single song. It's a game of keeping up; Palmer rushes ahead while the audience tries to take stock of whether that last couplet was hilarious, or unbelievably heartbreaking.

The evening began with The Builders and The Butchers a Portland-based five-piece dedicated to the fine art of moody, blues-infused rock. After a slightly generic opener, akin to a stripped down Rob Thomas song, the band managed to come alive with a suite of compelling and hypnotic tunes. "Black Elevator" was a real stand out. And while the band seemed like an odd fit upon first glance, by the end of their set most of the half-full auditorium was boogying to their stripped down beats.

Up next was Zoe Keating, a sort of post-modern cellist. It has been said, "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture" and never has that been more true than with Keating. I simply lack the vocabulary to adequately describe her thoroughly transcendental set of live-sampled cello playing. Keating began each song with a basic unit, then live sampled that instrumentation and embellished it with another element until the songs built to a symphony played all by one woman. As she played, her eyes glazed, her mouth went slack, the music flowed through her. The audience looked largely the same, awestruck by her work. Keating is the only artist from whom I have ever purchased a record at the show.

Finally it was 10:30, time for Palmer to take the stage.

For a dead girl, Palmer sure knows how to lay it down. The set began with a dirge in her honor which turned into a séance and built to the opening notes of the album opener, "The Astronaut". Palmer was in top form, even on this last day of her exhaustive world tour.

But this was not simply a show from one half of The Dresden Dolls. Instead, without the pulsating drums of her bandmate Brian Viglione, Palmer's lyricism took on a different feeling. Songs that feel playful on the record here come off as dour. The poetry of Palmer's voice and words accentuated and highlighted by the rawness of the live show as it counterpoints the overproduced cacophony of many of the record's songs.*

Some of the songs, such as the Lou Reed inspired "Blake Says", featured entirely new vocal arrangements, while others, like the few Dresden Dolls tracks, simply felt newly vital with the addition of cello and violin in the place of punkish drumming. In fact, Palmer's rendition of the band's signature hit, "Coin-Operated Boy" sounded stronger at this show than I have ever heard it played.

And even those songs that were done straight gained new dimension as the interpretive dance act, The Danger Ensemble, mimed their way through both comedy and tragedy. The Brechtian symphony of songstress and mimes hit an especially moving crescendo with a breathtaking rendition of the post-columbine ballad, "Strength Through Music".**

The evening was light on Palmer's famous cover songs, eschewing them in favor of vaudevillian lip-sync. Were this any other act, the snide jabs at Katy Perry might come off as self-indulgent sour grapes, but because of Palmer's peculiar aura, the faux-performances, including a sync of her all out rock song "Guitar Hero" played as charming. The show-closing version of Rihanna's mega-hit "Umbrella" was especially pleasing as it worked simultaneously as a great dance song and as a sharp critique of hip hop's misogynistic leanings.

The two hour-plus set was perhaps the strongest I've seen Palmer play and for all of her comments about being tired and slightly ill, none of it ever showed on stage. Though she mentioned in passing that she might be dropped from Roadrunner Records come the new year, nothing short of a real death is going to slow Palmer down.

Not an act to miss.


* Courtesy of Ben Folds.

** Doubly impressive because I usually skip the song on the record.

Video: "Astronaut" by Amanda Palmer

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