You wouldn’t think that a pop music duo specializing in the fairly minimal piano-drums set-up would be able to project a stage presence beyond more than your usual introspective singer-songwriter fare, but you’ve got to hand it to Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione of the Dresden Dolls, who not only bring a highly unique take on the typical rock show, but make each performance seem like an event in itself. With the help of the band’s ultra-devoted cadre of fans (dubbing themselves the Brigade), the pair have fun with their facetiously described, oft-quoted “Brechtian punk cabaret” aesthetic, incorporating visual and performance art with the music onstage, which, along with the grease painted, lingerie-wearing flamboyance of Ms. Palmer and Mr. Viglione, makes for a concert that is anything but dull.
And it was only a matter of time that Palmer, a former performance artist herself (she first gained notoriety in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a human statue), took that collaborative idea and went all-out with it, and the Dolls’ run of shows at London’s historic, recently renovated Roundhouse in November of 2006 afforded her the opportunity to both create a lavish, multi-dimensional multimedia experience for the audience and record it for posterity. Recruiting a menagerie of buskers, dancers, performance artists, painters, and acrobats, Palmer was able to piece together what turned into a deliriously chaotic combination of Weimar cabaret, Dadaist insanity, and fringe festival eccentricity. The end result: a fabulous live document that captures the Dresden Dolls at their most ebullient, ostentatious, and fun.
If Tori Amos approaches her piano playing with a strong sense of refined eroticism, Amanda Palmer takes a much more feral approach, assaulting the keys, tilting forward on her stool, her barretted hair quickly coming loose, sweat beading on her whitefaced brow. And Viglione follows suit behind his kit, hammering away with the force of a hard rock drummer, creating an ultra-tight backbeat for Palmer, who not so much croons as howls like a crazed woman, intoning in a husky voice that, while often sounding a bit flat, sells her clever lyrics splendidly. The duo’s 17 song set on Live at the Roundhouse is evenly split between the duo’s two excellent albums, 2004’s The Dresden Dolls and 2006’s Yes, Virginia…, and the further into the hour and a half performance we get, the more we realize just how versatile Palmer and Viglione are in concert, ranging from the frenetic “Modern Moonlight”, to the dark themes of B-side “Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner”, to the humorous and catchy “Shore of California”, to the faux-Spector melodies of “The Jeep Song”, to the riot grrrl intensity of “Girl Anachronism”, to the anthemic yet tender ballad “Sing”.
The highlights of the performance are often the moments where the band pulls out little surprises, such as the stunning acrobatics of a female aerialist during “Gravity”, a heartfelt acoustic cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy”, a collaboration with singer Trash McSweeny during a cover of “Mad World”, a crew of similarly dressed fans recruited onstage to contribute backing vocals on “The Jeep Song”, and the interpretive dance of Australian troupe Zen Zen Zo in the middle of the audience during “Slide”. That said, it all boils down to the chemistry between the two stars of the show, and the interaction between Palmer and Viglione is remarkable, especially during fan favorite “Coin Operated Boy”, whose stuttering arrangement is delivered with incredible tightness.
The camera set-up in the venue is inspired, focusing not only on the show onstage, but also the eccentric confines of the Roundhouse, giving us a good indication of the overall feel of the venue and the mood of the evening. Sadly though, despite Palmer’s gracious acknowledgments of all the guest performers in the booklet, few of them are actually seen on the DVD, save for some brief interviews in the rather skimpy extras section (a real shame, because the Pish Dolls’ heavy metal Barbie puppet show looks really cool). Still, the half hour documentary is entertaining, and we do get a couple of terrific bonus performances, a so-bizarre-it’s-sorta-lovely duet between Palmer and Lene Lovich on “Delilah”, and a theatrical guest turn by Legendary Pink Dots singer Edward Ka-Spel during “Missed Me”. Tastefully edited, and neatly presented in both enhanced widescreen and 5.1 surround (let’s face it, both are a must these days), it’s a fitting memento for anyone who saw the Dolls on their recent world tour, and a revelatory experience for those who foolishly write off the band as little more than female singer-songwriter fare for sullen teenage goth girls.