How was the first night of her Sydney Festival residency?
God damn you, Amanda Palmer.
I’ve seen Ms Palmer a lot over the years – a couple of times with the Dresden Dolls, a few times solo, her gloriously shambolic Opera House all-star train wreck – and thus was feeling a bit blasé about seeing her yet again. I even knew what the likely show would be: play some songs, do some hits’n’memories on the piano, couple of guests, something something ukulele, and we’re done. Entertaining, sure, but not something to get super excited about.
The thing that’s easy to forget about Palmer – especially if you’ve been hammered for the last few years with TED videos about online audience building and pro-n-anti internet screeds on whether she’s a 21st century marketing genius or a mad egomaniac or both or neither – is that she is first and foremost an utterly extraordinary live performer.
The night began with her entering the Spiegeltent from behind the audience, clad in evening gown and long gloves, strumming her uke and singing ‘In My Mind’ unamplified as she wandered through the venue. And from there the audience were treated to a grab-bag of material spanning much of her career (though, oddly, nothing from the most recent album).
She’s not just a good musician – watching her on the piano burning through the ‘Dolls’ ‘Coin Operated Boy’ and swapping between deliberately ham-fisted discord and flawless legato was a perfect microcosm of her musical chops – and, indeed, her recent fondness for the ukulele seems to be a sly way of mitigating the importance of her musical training.
It’s not even her voice, which she wields like a weapon: an eyebrow-raised purr here, a full throated bellow there.
What makes her so compelling is the way that she commits 100% to every song, whether it’s her tongue in cheek ‘Vegemite’ or the joyful ‘Map of Tasmania’ through to her haunting, stately cover of Ted Egan’s ‘The Drover’s Boy’.
Palmer’s promised special guests each night, and tonight we were treated to a drag-clad Brendan McLean for a beautiful duet of Bat for Lashes’ ‘Laura’, and a performer – “stripper” is far too reductive, given the weight of the performance – during ‘The Drover’s Boy’ (and sincere apologies for failing to catch her name: please, if you know who it was, add it in the comments).
And for a show that was supposedly bashed out on the fly, Palmer ended the night with some premier emotional manipulation. First there was a new song, her first after an extended writer’s block, which began with what sounded like eye-rolling self-obsession over internet bitching and ended seven minutes later with friends dying and letters from French rape survivors that had me sobbing in my seat, immediately followed by her jubilant you-can-do-this-too rallying cry, ‘Ukulele Anthem’.
Once again I thought I had the measure of the woman, and once again I was knocked on my arse. You have eight more chances to see her, and I suggest you take as many as you can. I left her show feeling emotionally pummelled; exactly as I always have done.
Seriously, Palmer: damn you.