Thursday, November 29, 2012

Show review: Amanda Palmer & Grand Theft Orchestra, Jherek Bischoff, The Simple Pleasure at Metro, 11/10

By Eliana Siegal

The anticipation was almost palpable at the Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra show earlier this month at Metro. Until the crowd had begun a chant of “AMAN-DA PALM-ER!” during the moments before she came onstage, I had forgotten that for most people, this was their first time seeing Palmer in her latest manifestation--with the Grand Theft Orchestra. Palmer had performed as half of the Dresden Dolls from 2001 to 2008, and reunited with her partner Brian Viglione for a tour in 2010. Since 2008, Palmer has been touring solo and with her side project, Evelyn Evelyn, as well as putting out material for free on her website. Her latest album Theatre is Evil, released this year, was her first official album since 2008‘s Who Killed Amanda Palmer?. The album’s recording and release process was funded by a Kickstarter campaign, which offered to backers unconventional and one-of-a-kind rewards for pledging, including an art book inspired by the album. One of the most special rewards was an invitation to the gallery openings in seven major cities, where Palmer displayed the art included in the book (I was lucky enough to see Palmer at the small show that accompanied her art show in Brooklyn). Her campaign raised $1.1 million and was backed by nearly 25,000 people. With such a devoted fanbase behind her, it was no surprise that the theme of the night seemed to be, simply and solely, the audience.

One thing I had noticed immediately about the crowd at the show was that there was an incredible range of people there; Palmer fans did not appear to be limited by any scope, be it sex, race, age, demographic, or subculture. I’m sure it delights Palmer on a daily basis that teenagers with hot pink streaks in their hair can enjoy her music as much as their mothers can. Twenty-something college students in spectacles mingled with blue-collar men with grey mustaches. I met girls there who had made their own costumes -- rarely ever have I seen such dedication. They had dressed up for Palmer; this was no ordinary night, for anyone involved.

Jherek Bischoff
"It's so awesome to get to play chamber music to a rock crowd,"” gushed Jherek Bischoff, who performed with his one-night-only orchestra of local musicians as the first act. In every city Bischoff performs in with Palmer, he chooses a new group of musicians to support him, and he teaches them the songs the day of the show. His group that night played fluidly; there was no indication that they had not been with him from the beginning, recording the album, Composed. (Bischoff recorded his it with a small group of classically-trained musician friends, and with help from famous performers like Nels Cline and SoKo). Bischoff opened with an intense bass solo, and then went on to play and sing the next three songs with talent beyond his years. He was not limited to bass; he played the guitar and the ukelele, and the transition never felt forced. His style of music was one of haunting, delicate baroque pop. He wore a tuxedo and had slicked back his hair elegantly, and he could not have been more disparate from the act that followed him.

The Simple Pleasure
The Simple Pleasure--consisting of Palmer’s guitarist Chad Raines, Jessie England, and Wes Maracelli--made me feel like I was in an '80s exercise video that had collided with a dance music bonanza. Raines was fearless--something I had already suspected from my first glance at his outfit--treating the stage like his playground and the people like his playthings. He engaged the excitable crowd, leaping onto the barricade and grabbing as many hands from the sea of outstretched arms as he could. He had everyone’s attention with his antics, and he basked in that. However, his bold stage presence in no way distracted from his musicianship. The band soared through their short set, providing the crowd with their first taste of dance-worthy music; the best was yet to come.

After the wait, Palmer finally took the stage, and right then, I think we knew it had all been worthwhile. Her first song was accompanied by projections of flashing images blinking to the beat of the song, “Smile (Pictures or it Didn’t Happen).” The band had asked fans--for every show, not just Chicago--to submit personal photos in categories such as “your street,” “someone you have lost,” and “your ‘pictures-or-it-didn’t-happen' moment.” The entire band wore white for those first few moments, so that the pictures could project over them, adding another layer to the aesthetics. The sentimentality was a touching way to let the people in the audience feel like they were each part of the show.

The show was filled with moments like that--moments specific to Palmer alone, moments where you stood back and said, "only Amanda could pull that off." After all, at the Brooklyn show I saw she brought out David Byrne to cover “Burning Down the House” with her, so I came to this show expecting these moments. For “Missed Me," a Dresden Dolls cover, Palmer and her band ran around, switching instruments with glee. The whole crowd sang along as Palmer strummed Bischoff’s bass, smashed on Michael McQuilken’s drums and plinked on her own keyboard. Later, Palmer paused her own show to tell a story about going into a comic shop just to gaze at the books written by her husband, author Neil Gaiman, and then led us all in singing him Happy Birthday. After that, She began “The Bed Song” (inspired by/written for Gaiman), a breathtaking tale of a couple’s lost love. It was chilling to hear with the crowd’s undertone supporting her
poignancy: she was alone in her tragedy, but not truly.

Palmer seems quite happy with her new band, and she has right to be: Raines, Bischoff and McQuilken were wonderful. Their energy made the crowd ecstatic, led them to jump with feet no longer so tired. Raines and Bischoff harmonized, enhancing Palmer’s powerful vocals well. Toward the end of the night, Palmer gave the floor (and the mic) to McQuilken as they played one of the songs from his new project, The Few Moments. It made me eager to hear the record when I got back home.

Amanda Palmer is a performer in the most honest sense of the word. Palmer has been given one task--to entertain--and she excels at it. To me, there was never a moment where I was checking my watch. There was always something that held my attention, be it Palmer’s writhing around on the stage floor, raising her voice to the heavens, or cozying up to her bandmates. Even during the more moving songs, the ones you couldn’t dance to, she was absolutely captivating. I feel confident that I could see Amanda Palmer dozens of times and still be just as awed by her. She is /that/ kind of performer.

For many more photos from the show, visit the Saudade Photography Facebook page.

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