Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra: 11 November 2012 – Milwaukee, WI

Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra

In recent years, Amanda Palmer has received a lot of attention — and most of it has not been for her music but for her life, aesthetic, and business decisions. She has been called many things, but there is one word of description on which everyone can agree: performer. Palmer is a performer, an entertainer first and foremost. Her former jobs, which included being a stripper and a living statue, testify to this, as do her well known “ninja gigs” where she plays an impromptu show, usually only announced on Twitter. Her role as a performer means that, for better or worse, she will almost always choose spectacle over artist perfection and rigid professionalism. At Turner Hall in Milwaukee, WI, on November 11, 2012, this fact was made clear in many choices Palmer made, creating an ambivalent but unforgettable concert experience.

The doors opened at 7 PM and when it was time for the performance to begin, Palmer, clad in a kimono, appeared onstage and threw fruit into the crowd as she introduced the first opening act, Jherek Bischoff, the bassist in Palmer’s current backing band, the Grand Theft Orchestra. After they finished a brief but lively set, Palmer returned again to introduce the second opening band, which happened to be her guitarist’s other project. Though it was an entertaining performance, the band occasionally sacrificed the music for theatrics.

This brings us to Palmer, who finally took the stage at 10 PM, after the crowd had already been standing for three hours and had listened to two bands. Given the elaborate stage setup that was required for her show, a shorter wait time or alternating opening bands from night to night might have gone a long way towards courtesy, though the crowd in attendance seemed happy to wait as long as they needed to for Palmer.

The setlist (available here) began with “A Grand Theft Intermission” and “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)”. While Palmer seemed, as always, full of energy, the presentation of the opening songs was overdone. Counting Palmer, the Grand Theft Orchestra, and the horn and string sections that were playing on some songs, the stage had over a dozen musicians on it at first, on top of video projections. Further, the vocals were mixed so low that Palmer was barely audible at all during “Smile”. She would later ask for it to be turned up – a request which paid off.

Once the stage emptied out a bit and the video projections stopped, the show had enough breathing room to get more enjoyable. On “Do It With a Rockstar”, the first single from current album Theatre Is Evil, Palmer was in top form, grabbing her crotch, slapping her ass and even rubbing some audience member’s hands against her crotch. A humorous performance of “Missed Me” (a cover of a song by Palmer’s former band, the Dresden Dolls), where Palmer frequently paused in catlike positions and the band members repeatedly ran around the stage swapping instruments, delighted the crowd.

However, two major factors that changed the atmosphere soon came to light. Palmer apologized for being sick (“a fountain of snot,” in her words) and having to blow her nose so much. She later said that she had been sick for over a week and that at one European show, she had held up cue cards during a few songs rather than sing them. While her commitment to performing is admirable, canceling one or more of these shows would have been a nice professional courtesy (and good self-care) rather than delivering a string of peformances hampered by sickness, though Palmer was in good spirits about it. She did remark that if she were a “real” singer like Beyonc√©, there was no way they would let her on stage in this condition. Her vocals (and mood) were impressively good given her sickness, but that is all part of Palmer’s consummate performer skills and work ethic.

The second factor that colored the evening was a rather bizarre interaction with a fan. Early into the show, an audience member repeatedly yelled for “Brian,” clearly expressing a wish for Dresden Dolls’ drummer Brian Viglione to be present and for Palmer to be performing with the Dolls rather than the Grand Theft Orchestra. The gentleman in the audience persisted in his requests for Brian even after Palmer addressed a comment to him, so Palmer made the rather unorthodox decision to invite her heckler onstage to air his grievances. This situation was awkward, and one wonders why Palmer chose this method of addressing the problem. It did, however, allow her a moment for a very excellent jab: as soon as the gentlemen got onstage, he said, “The Dresden Dolls changed my life.” Palmer, looking at the crowd, squarely responded, “The Dresden Dolls changed my life too.” As the audience member expressed his disappointment with her current music, Palmer spoke about how his statements were hurtful because her new band members were talented musicians and good friends. The conversation eventually ended with a hug, but it was a strange spectacle — one which the audience needn’t necessarily have witnessed — and clearly upset Palmer, who made a few more references to it during the night and later tweeted, “in weird-land: a guy tonight kept shouting “BRIAN” between every song. I brought him up on stage so we could talk. haunted I’m telling you.” (A video of this interaction was posted here.)

Although the long wait time, Palmer’s sickness, and the strange interaction with the audience member made it somewhat hard to focus on the show fully, there were still plenty of memorable musical moments. Palmer did a very stirring version of “Berlin”, a moving song from the new album about her days as a stripper. A heartwrenching rendition of “Trout Heart Replica” was performed with the string section. During a more upbeat number, Palmer dove into the crowd and crowd-surfed amid a giant swath of fabric. Some of the arrangements (“Astronaut” and “The Bed Song”) which highlighted Palmer’s keyboard skills were especially nice, and it would have been a treat to hear more of that, and one hopes she will tour with a full piano one day.

Songs from Palmer’s earlier catalog were kept to a minimum. “Astronaut”, “Leeds United”, and “Oasis” were all played from her prior solo release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?. The only two Dresden Dolls songs which appeared were “Missed Me” and “Girl Anachronism”. Nothing was performed from Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, and there was one song — a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” taken from the Amanda Palmer Performs The Popular Hits Of Radiohead On Her Magical Ukulele EP — played as an intimate encore with Palmer solo on ukulele.

When the show finished at midnight, many left as they had come, despite the hindrances to the performance. Those who came starry-eyed for Palmer were no less enchanted, and those more ambivalent didn’t seem to be leaving with their minds made up after two hours in Palmer’s company. It seems that Palmer will remain a polarizing figure in today’s musical and entertainment landscape.