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February 28, 2012
Tonight Amanda Palmer unveiled her new creation. The room went dark. The one and only AFP took the stage followed by three men known now as the Grand Theft Orchestra. All were in 80s garb.
Amanda, looking much like herself – corset, black bra, and vaguely Victorian overcoat which came off, as per usual, after about three songs.
Chad, the guitarist, matched. Similar band leader coat, tights, garnished with an ascot and a David Bowie glam vibe.
Jherek, the bassist, wore a white powdered wig, slacks, and vest that had an indescribably glam hint.
Michael, the drummer, wore sequins on his face, glittered lipstick, and pants with a glitter waist tie.
The performance was, as the band name would imply, grand. It was also, as the first live performance of a new band would imply, an experiment. Sometimes it worked. Some parts were lessons.
The show started off with full throttle renditions of “Astronaut” and “Girl Anachronism.” The energy was high; the band reveled in it. And despite previous listens to the studio versions, I discerned more of the lyrics here, live. It says a lot for the Northcote Social Club’s acoustics and sound engineer. Amanda slammed at the keys with a vigor that even she only rarely hits. The band assaulted their instruments with a sense of do or die, each one taking a role that came together to fill a great complete picture.
Chad had a frenetic energy to his playing. At times he fervently nodded, and at others he had full body convulsions to the beat. On other artists this energy rarely works; Chad hit it without seeming forced or too self-indulgent. His backup vocals were spit into the mic but were completely clear. His guitar was hyper, his synth measured yet emphatic, and even his brief foray into brass was belted.
Jherek found his own groove with the music. Avoiding the tried and true stoic bassist role, and keeping himself reined in from bouncing around the stage, he bobbed and swayed enough to be interesting without being a distraction. He was clearly into the music, and enjoying it, but doing it with reserve. His face through most of the set had what I can only call a bemused look.
Michael rounded out the group by filling in on banter. He was the one shooting back and forth with Amanda between songs. On the more energetic drum fills he donned an intent face and assaulted them. For the majority of the songs he hit the beats with precision and energy without draining himself into it.
After nailing the first couple older songs they launched into what was to be the majority of the set and the reason for the residency at Northcote Social – the new material. The first few new songs were played with vigor. The band maintained their performance style throughout, though the style of the music itself changed song to song. Amanda let out the songs with her definitive style – at times aggressive, at times mournful, at times off-key but with a passion that makes that irrelevant. She walked away from the safety of the keys to tackle a few songs solely on the microphone, a large step for someone who has admitted to feeling like a fraud when she isn’t hiding behind an instrument. My favorite of these songs (and a highlight in the new material, “Killing”) featured a pointed syllabic emphasis reminiscent of “Runs in the Family.”
The lower part of the show came once the band left. Amanda nailed “Map of Tasmania,” a crowd-pleaser down here in Australia. But the problems started with a cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.” It is a song she has done several times recently without incident, but from issues with ukulele tuning to forgetting the first words she seemed to be starting to lose her link to the energy of the night. It is understandable, to fall out of the moment with a couple shake-ups like that. The crowd itself was amazing through this. They are so devoted and polite that the room was silent. This was made evident by the whispered conversation several rows back that I could easily hear. It was the only non-musical sound in the room. This is possibly the result of how polite people are here, or possibly how polite her fans are, or the fact that the club is far enough out of the city to discourage drop-ins.
Lesson one that I’m sure Amanda has taken from the show is that her voice can’t take what she is putting it through. The new songs are loud, aggressive, angry, and draining. The first verse of “Fake Plastic Trees” had drop-offs. The second was made louder to compensate, but not enough. The third she sung at full volume, diverging from her standard style and working around her vocal limitations.
She moved to the keys to play the showcase song from the new batch, “The Bed Song.” It is a brilliant song, and contains the most crushing line I’ve heard since Danielle Ate the Sandwich wrote “Afterwards.” (Check them both out, because the weight of the lines is lost out of context. You’ll know them when you hear them.) Amanda attacked the keys with as much fervor as one can on a solo piano heartbreak song but broke a key at the end of the bridge. In stopping to call it out she seemed to momentarily lose her place in the song. I know I lost my place in the progression. It is the behind-the-scenes look that most fans don’t get; but it also stops the flow of a song that emotionally builds to a devastating release.
For both songs she kept her eyes mostly closed – something she doesn’t usually do. Were I watching most other musicians I would think they were so deep in the emotion of the song that they were losing themselves in it. With Amanda it seemed more that she knew she was not tapped into it enough and was trying to force her way back in. It is a trick that works to a degree. But like anyone that has tried to close their eyes and fall back into a dream or think sad thoughts to avoid laughing at an inappropriate moment knows, it is one that only works so far.
The band returned and the first few songs were fairly well executed. The thing pulling me out of it was the lack of focus. The new songs aren’t as “all over the place” as those on Kenna’s brilliant but “schizophrenic” Make Sure They See My Face, but they ranged from full band assault rock to electro to singer-songwriter on piano to slide guitar to glam. Each one works well on its own (with the exception of one which seemed to go on for a minute too long). But it will take the release of the album to see if they can pull all of the styles together to create a cohesive whole, or whether it will be a collection of individual songs.
A horn section – comprised of local musos stolen from other bands (hence the Grand Theft Orchestra moniker) – came out for the last few songs of the set. They started with the follow-up to “The Jeep Song,” a new one about living on a street that has too many painful memories, followed by the new song that has gotten stuck in my head most often, and concluded with “Leeds United.” With the new musicians came a new energy that brought the band back into full measure. It seemed to be the change of scenery that Amanda needed to lose herself back into the music.
The encore of “Runs in the Family” and “Oasis” was the band’s way of putting an exclamation point on the night.
I left with a feeling of excitement. Most of the songs had not been performed live before. It is the reason for the shows. It is the reason we were not allowed to record them. As Amanda warned before they started the new material, they are not fully baked. They are works in progress. And for that, they are fantastic. As the rest of the residency rolls along they will fine tune. The vocals might become more reserved, or they might switch the order around to put the quiet songs first. They will certainly learn. But the group is playing together as if they’ve been doing it for a while. And the product at the end of the five shows is going to be a brilliant one. The album is going to be beyond anything Amanda has done to date. I’m ready to watch the process.