Some things overwhelm you enough to feel life-affirming. They send a jolt through your spine and shout at you, “THIS IS WHY YOU’RE ALIVE,” lingering with you long after the moment has passed. On Wednesday night, Amanda Palmer was jostling through an enthusiastic crowd of adoring fans and excited spectators, managing somehow to continuously belt out all the lyrics to “Do It With A Rockstar.” She had already passed by me in the crowd when she climbed over the barrier, and though I’ve met her briefly before, the sight of her close up gave me a shot of giddy adrenaline. It overwhelmed me that she’s so trusting and loving of her fans she can wade through a crowd of corset-wearing, buzz-cutted, glitter-adorned individuals safe with the knowledge that they’ll make space and simultaneously keep providing back-up vocals as they sing/shout the lyrics with fists pumping and legs bouncing. Returning to the stage via my direction, she grabbed my head and pressed it against her sweaty brow, only the wireless microphone keeping us from what would count as full facial snogging.
It was a moment so brief that I can’t even recall what I did; I think I continued to sing along, but I wouldn’t be surprised if no words came out; I’d like to think I met her near-threatening, if not intimidating glare, but if my eyes darted to my surroundings from sheer “Oh my God”-ness, then once again I wouldn’t be surprised. The only I know I that afterwards, once she moved to another person in the crowd and did the same thing (this fan reciprocated and grabbed the back of Palmer’s head; evidently she knew what she was doing and has been in this setting before), I just stood stock still amid the madness, staring at the stage lights, jaw agape, and thinking, “I’ll never wash my forehead again.”
I’m not in love with Amanda Palmer, but she’s very impressionable – especially when she’s literally right in your face. Last year’s Theatre Is Evil, in my opinion, wasn’t perfect, but the sheer scale and audacity of it all is likely to leave a dent somewhere in your emotional memory. Consequently, when Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra started pummelling out “Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen),” I too found myself begging for some cathartic afterlife experience, shouting along that I too “don’t wanna die.”
Palmer comes with a fair share of criticism, whether it be the furore of initially not paying volunteering musicians to play at her shows, or getting into online tiffs with Steve Albini, but it’s hard to deny she puts on a hell of a show. Despite arriving in good time to the HMV Picture House, I could already hear that the night’s proceedings had begun as I ascended the stairs. The Horn Dog Brass Band were already playing in the middle of the floor as the incoming crowd started forming a semi-circle around them and their jazzy playing.
The evening was pretty full, but it wasn’t long before Palmer made her first appearance. After a short and enthusiastic set by the Horn Dog Brass Band (whose name it was easy to mishear in many different ways; Corn Dog Brass Band, or Horny Hog Brass band, for instance) and an enthralling three-song set by Jherk Bischoff (bass player and composer in the Grand Theft Orchestra), Palmer appeared on stage, introducing the over-zealous glam rock of The Simple Pleasure, whose lead singer Chad Raines (also a member of the Grand Theft Orchestra) seemed to have a glutinous dose of ecstasy and indifference shooting through his veins. Palmer joined the duo for one song, but her real entrance came when she appeared behind the crowd with her supporting brass band in tow and proceeding to belt out one of the most impressionable renditions of “St James Infirmary Blues” since Hugh Laurie decided to snazzily draw the track out over seven minutes on his debut album back in 2011.
At a moment’s notice she was gone, though, and turning their head back to the stage, the crowd were met with the acoustic duo Bitter Ruin, scorning each other verse after verse. Georgia Train took the limelight with the kind of voice that Simon Cowell would probably have a wet dream about, all domineering and impossible to not be left a little winded by. Their set was just one song – a somewhat predictable ballad that lost its footing as both band members sung simultaneously at each other – and while it wasn’t the kind of song that could convert a crowd, it kept the schedule brimming.
Unfortunately after this, the proceedings lulled into an entertainment nothingness, and perhaps because of the already full agenda, the next twenty minutes waiting for something to happen felt like a drag. Tension building, sure, but it made the one-song set from Bitter Ruin seem essentially superfluous since they evidently had more time to kill. The thought of that wait was gone when Palmer took to the stage with the Grand Theft Orchestra and the Horn Dog Brass band. When Bischoff began his short solo set earlier with a carnivorous track of looping bass riffs, it suddenly made it evident who brought the backbone to Theatre Is Evil’s “Grand Theft Intermission,” and when the set began with this track, he once again was taking charge. For what must have been a solid half hour, nothing let up as Palmer charged through the crowd during the aforementioned “Do It With A Rockstar” and quite possibly the most enjoyable/heaviest version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” i’ve ever come across live (the joy of jumping about in a crowd that doesn’t want to push you about in anger can’t be understated). The first side of Theatre Is Evil was covered generously, with “The Killing Type,” “Want It Back,” and “Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen)” being belted out with all the energy you’d expect.
Yet, for some reason, after all the initial excitement, and the pleasant stage banter as Palmer and her band touched upon her recent dealings with the Daily Mail, the excitement in me faded, and I stood there only ever slightly enamoured by the performance. I considered if I was just worn out after all the jumping and face hugging, but no: I wanted to jump more. I wanted to dance and party and shout along lyrics in the strained and incorrect key. The songs were there, as they trundled through a “Twist and Shout”-spiked up version of “Oasis,” and “Delilah,” where Bitter Ruin’s Georgia Train came onstage for a duet, but my spirit seemed to have been stolen. Having Palmer crowdsurf with a huge coat train was a wonderful experience during “Bottomfeeder,” but I daresay by then my interest had waned, and I wanted the show to be wrapped up or kicked seriously into gear. Once the band had taken their leave, I wandered to the door, only to hear Palmer return for a hasty version of “Girl Anachronism.” I watched from the back as the crowd jumped about, lights flashing and instruments pounding; now, separated from the bustle, it looked like a hell of a lot of fun.
I did actually feel like I was being unnecessarily cynical, and I pondered if it was just a case that perhaps I wasn’t getting the expected dose of Theatre Is Evil I wanted. Looking back afterwards, all the best material got a place on the setlist, and even though “The Bed Song” was absent (rightfully so; the setting just seemed off), the intimate, fragile moment came when Palmer took centre stage alone with her ukulele and tip-toed through the lines of a new song “Bigger On The Inside” where she somehow managed to reveal more about herself, line after line. It put the show into perspective if anything: all this bombast and theatre is a feast for the eye and ears, but at the centre of it all is a one person who has come to win over the hearts of hundreds gathered in one venue for a night. A human being. It’s amazing to look at how she manages to congregate these people in one room and make them feel like they’re – if just for a short while in in my case – part of something big. It’s kind of life-affirming when you think about it.