Friday, December 19, 2008

amanda palmer and the builders and the butchers @ henry fonda

To be fair, I still don't know who killed Amanda Palmer. Although I do think about it -- we all do. Maybe it was the press who placed such a burden upon her head, building her up to such dizzying heights. Or the bloggers with their zealous rants about her budding genius. Perhaps Amanda had begun to fear she could never reach the success heaped upon her from the live performances or recordings of her band the Dresden Dolls. Or maybe, just maybe after creating her greatest masterpiece to date, the arresting Who Killed Amanda Palmer, it was simply her turn to go gentle into that great night. Whatever the cause of her untimely demise, the legacy and memory she left behind will last. And an enduring legacy it is. Over the years my friends and I still get together and go over the evidence: the trading cards, the wild conspiracy theories, the rumors. Always the rumors. Despite our detective work, we always reluctantly agree that only Amanda holds all the answers, that we're just as in the dark as everyone else. Mostly though, we like to talk and remember about all the good times she's given us. How it feels like just yesterday when we saw her in concert -- full of joy and life. Yes, just like yesterday. Or rather, just like Tuesday night at the Henry Fonda.

The fun thing about Amanda Palmer in concert is that despite the random bits and bobs, the show is always tied together in a cohesive, thematic package. The heavy lifting started early as Portland-based openers The Builders and Butchers took the stage, immediately jumping into their percussive-heavy songs about, what else, death and dancing. Now, don't get me wrong, their CD is a solid dose of goth-punk-blues. However, you can't bottle lightening (lest you end up as one of their future song topics no doubt). Live, there's a delicious take-no-prisoners element and more instruments than you can shake a washboard at. By the end of the blistering half hour set their need for percussion was so great, many audience members were enlisted as back up, one lucky person armed with the band's kick drum.

Needless to say the second opener, Zoe Keating, had a tough act to follow. Her performance was of special interest to me as I used to believe I was a cellist. "Used to believe," as in I practiced three hours a day, took lessons, and in seven years managed to muster up enough technical skill to play last chair in the community orchestra. Direct comparison: When Zoe plays, her face goes loose, her eyes glaze over -- she is in her happy, transcendent place.When I played, the look on my face was not unlike an pilot trying to land a 747. With one wheel. I'm 85% certain that while Zoe was building up her mesmerizing soundscapes, I was actually making said face. She could have played all night. I would have happily listened.

Of course, out of respect to the dead, Zoe gracefully relinquished the stage, allowing the "mourning" portion of the evening to began. Amanda was ceremoniously carried in by her dancers and backing band The Danger Ensemble. Zoe returned, and the group ripped into the first number and Who Killed Amanda Palmer opener "Astronaut." For a dead girl, Amanda sure can rock.

From there, it was every man for himself. Amanda alone is a fairly intense exercise in emotive music making. With a backing cellist, violinist and interpretive dance team, it becomes an all out spectacle, dancing across the spectrum from the painful, tear-inducing (yeah I cried) tribute to the victims of Columbine, to the beautifully introspective "Ampersand," to the out-and-out goofy "Coin-Operated Boy." (Would you kiss for kash?) Occasionally it was a bit too much; I almost pulled a muscle in my neck trying to figure out what the dancers were up to in the middle of the crowd during "Have to Drive," but it was never boring. Even absurdist moments like the lip-synched tributes to Rihanna and Katy Perry, which for all practical purposes should have veered into self-indulgent territory, didn't. A tribute to the strength of the musicians and Amanda's relationship with her audience. You can't call a performer self-indulgent when the people off stage are having just as much fun as those on.

Who killed Amanda Palmer? Beats me. But, thanks to memories of nights like this, her legacy is guaranteed to live on.

(photo Amanda Palmer: Beth Hommel)
(photo Builders and the Butchers: Mel Brown)
(photo Zoe Keating: Lane Hartwell)


mp3: "On The Radio (Regina Spektor cover)" by Amanda Palmer
mp3: "When It Rains" by Builders and the Butchers
mp3: "Expo (live)" by Zoe Keating

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