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March 12, 2012
This was it. The end of the debut run of the new songs. After a few weeks of trying new arrangements and tweaking mixes, this was the last show before the band goes in to the studio to record the album. It promised to be the “biggest” show of the series in a way, as the last one always gets all the stops pulled out. The energy in the crowd was high. The expectations were even higher.
We had been told via tweet that we needed to show up on time since the festivities would be starting early and rolling all night. I don’t think anyone believed it, but at the time that doors were supposed to open (though they didn’t for another ten minutes), the line out of the club contained at least 10% of the fans for the night, a very unusual thing for Melbourne.
More than an hour later, 45 minutes after the scheduled start of the show, Die Roten Punkte took the stage. I don’t think anyone was surprised at the delay.
Die Roten Punkte is a band from Berlin (a fun bit of synchronicity given Amanda used to go by the stage name Berlin). They are a weird mish-mash of vampire glam, cabaret punk, awkward stage antics, and bad German accents. Think The White Stripes if they did awkward cabaret. Amanda had been raving about having them join on this show since the beginning and she was right. They were fun. The songs were a bit zany, catchy, and a little bit irreverent. The banter did a good job of involving the crowd, referencing their own lyrics, and even made light of their awkwardness in a way that was entertaining and not uncomfortable. They brought out Amanda to join on cowbell for their last song “I Am A Lion,” and she played somewhat excitedly, though she seemed a bit reserved. I guess that should say everything one needs to know about the band – that Amanda Palmer looked reserved in between them.
After their close came Jess Daly and Agent Cleave. I did enjoy the performance, and I enjoyed the song they performed to, and after three nights of seeing what was ostensibly the same act, I could see slight differences in costuming and actions. But for a duo doing the same performance art piece before three consecutive shows, one might expect they would vary it up a bit more, or try a different take on it somehow. Julia commented that she much preferred Agent Cleave doing his Egyptian geisha strip sans beard. I thought the powdered face over the black stubble was a nice contrast.
After a longer pause for the band to setup, the final performance commenced. This was to be the last time that most of us would see Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra play for quite a while. For a surprising amount of the crowd it was also to be the first.
They started phenomenally strong, with only Michael and Jherek on stage, warming up the speakers with drums and bass respectively. Chad soon joined to add the higher notes of the guitar to the mix and Amanda followed to round out the keys. The band has locked solidly into a multi-minute instrumental groove opening to “Astronaut” which doesn’t sound derivative of the song, but doesn’t sound out of place as an opener either. The increasing energy of the instruments, all without a single word being uttered, gives the crowd no option to talk over the music and no pause for discussion. We have only to be swept up in the swell and let the show engulf us completely as the music pauses and the pounded first four chords of “Astronaut” kick in. It is hard to argue with this as a start to the show.
As the nights have been progressing for the rest of the shows, the band continued on with some other previously recorded tracks. “Runs in the Family” featured the bass heavy mix again, but tonight something was amiss. It was my familiarity with this live track that caused me to notice it so early on, and to some degree I wish I hadn’t. (More on that in a minute.)
“Missed Me” again featured the band switching instruments between verses, all frenetic energy. Chad’s performance on bass didn’t quite evoke Jherek, but it was reserved for Chad, and had a somewhat more postured air to it. Jherek’s stint on drums seemed to indicate that he has been watching Michael closely, or at least he naturally assumes a bouncing and frantic smashing when he gets behind the kit.
Being the eve of Michael’s birthday, the band paused to bring out a birthday cake and a card that many in the audience had signed. There were birthday hats (which stayed on for much of the rest of the show), and he even got a present – a brand new, top of the line electric soprano ukulele. This timing worked out well with his need to play uke on the next song, Radiohead’s “Idiotheque.” The band sailed through this song as they had before, creating a version of the original that was faithful yet was clearly their own. Chad and Jherek again played their strings in novel ways, and Michael played uke with his hands while operating the kick drums with his feet.
The band launched into some new songs, including one that hadn’t been performed live yet. Having heard the songs night after night, I’m growing familiar with them. It is odd to be singing along with a song that I know I’ve only heard a few times, more so one that I know I’ve never heard recorded. I think it says something to the quality of the lyrics and the clarity of the sound at the Northcote Social Club that I know more than half of “Killing” at this point. And it is on this point that I draw my biggest criticism of the night.
I’ve heard many people commenting that they haven’t seen a better performance from Amanda Palmer, and I’m really wondering if they had been to the rest of the residency. Night five wasn’t a bad show by any stretch, but knowing what levels the band could be hitting, it also wasn’t the pinnacle. I know I was feverish and a bit out of sorts, but I really think that this isn’t in my head. Or rather, I’m not imagining it. Plain and simple, the sound mixing wasn’t good. The drums were too loud. The guitar wasn’t at the right level. The keys were a bit too quiet in the mix. And whether it was because Amanda was holding back to save her voice for recording, or because the mic was turned down too much, the end result was that the vocals were lost on a number of songs. They still came through on the quiet piano and vocals tracks, and the verses of “Astronaut” were fine. But they fell into the mix on parts of “Killing” and the My Sharona song and were almost knocked out on a couple others. The band was just as energetic as always, from start to finish and across the board. But the mix seemed to suffer despite the band’s energy, or possibly because of it.
The odd thing is that despite having the vocals turned down in many of the songs, I picked up on lines in a couple that I hadn’t heard before. Amanda had solicited lyrical help over Twitter for a two syllable era (Bygone, Gatsby, Reagan – all rejected in favor of the one that will appear on the album as a very clever play on words) and had then tweeted the completed line, which I had been waiting to hear every night. It was on night five that I realized it was in one of the horn section songs, a song that had been played at four if not all five of the shows. And having heard Amanda’s explanation of the song about her previous employment (on which she said, “[I’m finally ready to tell my mom that [content deleted]… well maybe not right now, but when the record comes out.]”), and having heard the song a couple times before on a full sonic experience level, I could take this listen to step back and truly hear the lyrics and see how they painted the picture that she had hinted at.
During the Amanda solo time, she covered “Video Games” again. This time, as promised, she did so with her wrists bound. Though she had lamented this would hinder her playing, and it did limit her range and cause a couple dramatic pauses in the song where you could see she was trying to figure out how to adapt the next notes, it more than paid off in the vibe and look. The song is a profoundly disturbing one, and being in bondage while performing it really helps to get that across.
The band debuted a new song, which given that they played a nearly two hour set, is completely lost in the recesses of my mind. Or perhaps as one of the new songs informs me, it isn’t lost, but hiding, and it will come to me at night. I’m not optimistic about that. My companions for the evening seemed to really like the new song. All I could say about it now is that it struck me as short, which is to say it probably clocked in around three minutes and didn’t have five verses and three distinct parts of progression.
What nearly anyone who saw the show will point to as the first part of the one-two punch of highlights was when the horn section came out for the night, this time bringing with them David J, the bassist for Bauhaus. He’d never played a show in Australia in all his time with his band, but somehow the magic that is Amanda Palmer had gotten him here, on stage, to play a cover of “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” (No, not Green Day’s song of the same title that came along decades later.) The band, and Amanda especially, seemed phenomenally into this song, or at least playing with David J. While I can’t say what it is like to play on stage with him, I can say what it was like to be in the crowd for the performance of the song, and it was not the highlight of the show for me. The horns did a great job of their section considering they had no rehearsal and were only given a key to play in. But the vocals had the loose timing and interpretive singing/speaking quality of a lounge performer, which is a quality that I generally don’t get behind. It wasn’t completely out of place for the night, as Amanda was hesitating on a fair bit of lines herself, mixing up the cadence and not putting the words on the notes in the way she had on previous nights and the way I expect they will show up on the recording. It is that laid back, playing-around-with-the-lyrics vibe that keeps an artist sane and can be dangerous.
They solidly finished up the main set with the same three songs that they’ve been closing with due to the presence of the horns. And as on other nights, they were a solid set of three to end on. An energetic new one, a slightly less energetic new one, concluded by “Leeds United.”
The encore brought the second half of the highlight, and the half that actually was a highlight for me. Michael came out and started on drums. Not much of a hard-hitting beat, but a cadence nonetheless. Then David J came out and picked up Jharek’s bass. It wasn’t until Jharek came out and was started to get situated that David hit the notes that I knew so well. They were doing it. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” With the bassist from Bauhaus.*The intro is a long one, so it gave the crowd a bit of time to warm up to what was happening, a chance for those squeeing to explain to their friends who looked clueless just what the significance was. And after Chad had picked up the guitar and started on the ambient noise fills, Amanda came out dressed all in black, in a mourning funeral veil and hat, with a look that clearly meant a funeral, but one that you would never expect to see at a cemetery (and if you did, you would probably try very hard to go unnoticed or run away).** She was led by Jess and Agent Cleave, donning their minimal clothing, all of it black leather and kink gear. Amanda’s voice doesn’t reach the lower range that the song is originally done in, but she has an equivalently deep voice for a woman, and with that voice she did the song justice.
Leading up to, during, and after the MONA FOMA Violent Femmes performance, Amanda made it abundantly clear just how much it meant to her to be performing that album with Brian Ritchie. It was one of her favorites, one that meant so much to her growing up. It was a rock fantasy to get to do it live, with the bassist from the band.
Because David’s presence had been a surprise, there was no advanced giddiness. And because he was there and she was probably flying high on the energy to record the album, she didn’t say anything during the show. After all, how convincing is it to sing a goth song dressed in funeral garb right after saying how giddy you are to be doing it? But everything I know about Amanda points to this being another dream-come-true moment for her, playing a seminal song with the bassist from the band. And yet it wasn’t on her face. She was in full on artist mode, fully in the role. Or she was a million miles away, thinking about the record. I suppose I don’t really know. But it also doesn’t really matter. The band did a good job with it, and I was never going to get to see it live any other way.
They finished up on “Girl Anachronism”, giving us all one final chance to spaz out and get every last ounce of energy out of our systems. With my fever-addled body having been standing up for four hours, it wasn’t that hard to ensure that all my energy got used up. It seemed that other people had a similar ease. The show went on an hour later than any of the previous nights. The crowd got their fill. And hopefully it will be enough of a fill to last for a while, because this is likely the last band gig here for the next year or two. Bad news for Melbourne. Good news for fans of AFP back in the states.
* For those of you who don’t know what I’m writing here, here is what you need to know. Bauhaus was a band from the early 80s that made what you may call gothic rock, or maybe dark-wave, or something of that ilk. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was their big hit. Well, big in a certain context. This is the original, and arguably quintessential, gothic rock song. And the bass line in the song is what drives it. There are few songs where having the bassist from the band matters. Many Nirvana songs. Many Violent Femmes songs. “Smoke On the Water.” Probably a few others. And this one.
** I am really surprised at the providence in my choice of costume for the night. Most people called it American Gothic. It isn’t far off. The look I had going was somewhere between a mad scientist and a glam undertaker. Either way, it was dark, monochrome, and involved a bloody shovel. It fit with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” pretty well.