(disclaimer: my camera is downright awful and I got very few decent pics. Sorry, this is gonna be a wordy one!)
She walks the stage, wearing a long, silk slip underneath a long black jacket. Her hair is tied back, with white flowers pinned at either side, making her look like a more human Bride of Frankenstein. On her feet, military boots cover fishnet-stocking tights. She reaches the edge of the stage, facing out towards the audience, spotlight never shifting from her figure, while her hands rest on her stomach, which protects the delicate life within. She opens her eyes, facing the audience, and launches into the first song; a lilting, mournful ballad, called The Wind That Shakes the Barley.
Then, the show begins.
Amanda Palmer is warm, funny and vibrant. Her show is part gig (with her swapping between piano and ukulele throughout the show) part reading (this tour is actually to drum up excitement for Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking) and part comedy; it’s impossible to deny that Palmer is a funny woman.
The Leeds City Varieties Music Hall is packed to the gills; there’s not an empty seat or box anywhere. It’s a fancy, fancy venue, with a coat of arms affixed high above the stage, and with heavy red curtains framing the stage and each of the boxes. This is something she comments on, laughing about how unnatural it all is. This venue is more the type to hold intense, dramatic plays, not the do-it-yourself, punk aesthetic movement that is Amanda Palmer. However, she dominates the stage, going as far as to make a joke about the baby grand piano she’s been supplied with. She laughs, saying it has a Napoleon Complex and asks us not to judge it too harshly. The audience, enraptured by her, laughs and hollers.
After The Wind That Shakes the Barley, there’s some chatter and back-and-forth between Palmer and the audience. As is her nature, she involves everyone, taking song requests from us (to judge how likely we were to slit our wrists- it’s grim up north!) and throwing flowers. After some chatting, she settles down at the piano, kicking her shoes off, and then breaks into Astronaut (A Short History of Nearly Everything) which is a sad love song, mourning a distant lover. I’d not heard this song before. Truthfully, I’m not overly familiar with Palmer’s work, having listened to some Dresden Dolls stuff here and there, and watching a documentary on her. However, when she started playing, and singing, I felt myself stop dead; my mouth hung open, as if I’d witnessed a religious event. I feel my eyes well up with tears. The passion and raw emotion in the song got to me, and I couldn’t even bring myself to turn my camera on to take a picture. Her songwriting and performing is unparalleled, as she cram-packs so much emotion into any one song she does, and this is something I feel a lot throughout the course of the night.
Between songs, Palmer talks about her hopes and fears of motherhood. Palmer is, at this point, seven months pregnant to author Neil Gaiman. She mentions him, and experiences with him as little anecdotes throughout the show, and it’s charming and beautiful to witness such love for him. She counterbalances funny (performing a cover of Garfunkel and Oates’ Pregnant Women are Smug along with tour assistant/best friend Whitney Moses, who stuck around for a few more songs throughout the show.
Once Astronaut is over the audience go wild with applause and cheering, and Palmer smiles demurely, ever grateful for the feedback. After more chitchat, she launches into some of the more upbeat songs of the night; Ampersand, I Want You But I Don’t Need You, a Momus cover, and Vegemite (the Black Death). Ampersand is about being in a relationship and refusing to be part of a package (and a rip on catcall culture) I Want You is a song about independence and sexual freedom, veiled as a cutesy, repetitive long song; and Vegemite is a song about the most disgusting of foods; vegemite, and how Palmer hates it- a hatred which is well founded!
Then, we reach the emotional heart of the performance, as Palmer performs The Bed Song. While it’s usually Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, Palmer opts for a simple piano performance, which makes it all the more emotive and thrilling; in a mere matter of minutes, I find tears streaming down my face, ruining the carefully painted eyeliner I’d applied before the gig. Palmer’s voice cuts right to the core, bypassing any and all walls you’ve put up. The sheer sorrow of both the song’s subject and singer is almost palpable; I found myself forcing myself to look away at some points, hiding my tear-stained face. It was beautiful, and destructive all at once, proving that Palmer is a musical force to be reckoned with.
Once the closing chords of The Bed Song have echoed throughout the Varieties Hall, it is only after a very pregnant pause that the audience can applaud… Which they do, with more vigour than fans at a football match! After the sorrow of The Bed Song, Palmer opts for In My Mind, about the unsureness of the future. It’s touching, and all the more fitting, given the journey through life that Palmer has faced, as well as the new life she’s about to face with her new child. But also, there is the reassurance that hey, maybe we are exactly who we want to be right now.
After this, Palmer remembers what exactly she’s meant to be here for, and invites an audience member to the stage to choose a passage from The Art of Asking to be read aloud. The passage selected is about the run up to the Kickstarter hitting $1 million, and the difficulties of balancing life between sick friends and the excitement of running a Kickstarter. It’s a charged, powerful passage which is funny and touching, hiding behind the veneer of excitement… Which leads to the next song, Bigger on the Inside. Taking up her ukulele, Palmer launches into a song about ignoring hate from people, and how getting to know someone rather than hating someone’s description of them is not the way to go. It’s a response to the negative words she got after finishing the Kickstarter, and is about the most mature way one could react. Hate is hard to react to for anyone, but for someone like Palmer, who is unabashedly changing the way the music industry works and offering a new avenue for musicians.
While Palmer delivers on sad, emotional songs, she absolutely kicks ass at angry, funny and firey songs, as evidenced by her punkish outlook and process. Any show which features the audience being encouraged to yell “fuck it!” in a song about pubic hair on women as part of audience participation is absolutely a show I want to be at! The song referenced here is the hilariously funny Map of Tanzania, a one-and-a-half-minute rant on ukulele. It’s hilarious, angry, and so, so true. Palmer’s passion and anger catch the audience, as people sing along, laugh and whoop. Other funny, angry songs include Pregnant Women are Smug, Coin-Operated Boy and Leeds United (It was a given that she perform it here of all places!) which enchanted the audience, as we all sang along to Coin-Operated Boy the best way we knew how.
She also does a series of covers, including There is a Light That Never Goes Out by The Smiths, Pregnant Women are Smug by Garfunkel & Oates, and All I Could Do by Kimya Dawson. There is a Light that becomes anthemic and climactic beneath her fingers, and All I Could Do echoes the sentiment of In My Mind. She excels at covers as much as she excels at original properties, and always brings something new to each song.
Near the end of the show, Palmer performs a devastating duet with Whitney Moses, as they both perform Delilah, with Moses providing back-up vocals, in the form of long, evocative and soulful ‘ohs’ and ‘oohs’. Palmer and Moses’ repartee is funny, blending the lines between tour staff and friends, the two seems as close as sisters, which is heartwarming to see. Even when Palmer feels a million miles away from anywhere she wants to be, she has Whitney on hand, and that’s the sweetest thing.
Leeds United is officially the last song of the show, but knowing Palmer, she can’t leave it at just that. After rapturous applause and cheering, the lights go low, and a stagehand flits across the stage, gesturing to the audience. The lights come back up and Palmer, her face split in two by an enormously wide smile takes to hand her ukulele, first playing All I Could Do, breathing heavily into the microphone as if it were her last breath. After this came the raucously funny and upbeat Ukulele Anthem sang without a mic, just yelled to the audience, and you better believe they yelled it back! The heart and emotion in the room was at an all time high by the end of the show, with audience members putting their ukes proudly in the air, like a badge of honour, or a secret handshake.
An Evening With Amanda Palmer is an incredible event. While her music and performances are more on the vaudeville side, Palmer’s method of balancing and controlling the mood in the room through music is second to none. She’s as talented on the piano and uke as she is with people, and watching her perform is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Endlessly enchanting, funny and warm, An Evening With Amanda Palmer is an event you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
For info on tour dates, see her website.