By BRUCE DENNILL
Amanda Palmer / Fox Junction, 1Fox, Ferreira’s Dorp, Johannesburg 8.5
Amanda Palmer is a standout artist for a number of reasons – her fierce independence, the burning intensity of her stage act and her multi-faceted performance persona, which is funny, sensitive, confrontational and engaging. She is – and will likely continue to be – a cult favourite precisely because of all these faculties and the decidedly non-mainstream nature of her act and her music, peppered with swear-words, coal-black humour, candid social commentary and almost awkwardly authentic emotional revelations.
A sort of steampunk Tori Amos (that comparison based on topline musicianship, a predilection for grand pianos, red hair and quirky, unapologetic perspectives), Palmer strode on stage for her Johannesburg show, wearing a pair of boots it’d be easy to imagine being worn by the heroine in one of her husband Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy novels, to a rapturous reception, with cries of devotion (the correct word; her most enthusiastic fans are highly invested groupies) ringing off the steel roof of the large renovated shed that is the Fox Junction venue.
Right from the off – almost literally, as Palmer stopped halfway through her second song to comment on it – that combination of a boisterous audience and a cavernous shell of a venue became another character in the evening’s narrative, with the singer clearly and regularly distracted, despite her attempts to focus and clear her mind between songs.
For many, the development of that thread throughout the evening might’ve created a sour note, with Palmer first gently explaining how acoustics work, then more firmly (but with considerable charm) lecturing that percentage of the crowd that somehow couldn’t remain quiet and ultimately making the point that persistent chatter during a performance makes the artist feel like they’re being ignored, with her vocal tone and body language leaving no room for ambiguity regarding her frustration.
And still the talking continued, raising a version of an eternal question for any performer, but particularly for independent sorts whose fans haven’t been brainwashed by international marketing campaigns and mainstream chart ubiquity: in purely commercial, money-for-service terms, does the artist have as much as a right to enjoy themselves during their concerts as the fans who have paid to watch them, and come with their own expectations of what constitutes a good time?
There are arguments both ways, certainly, and many of the noisy culprits in this instance would probably have suggested that the behaviour expected when lurking at a bar in the rear of a hipster-philic barn is different than when seated in a plush theatre where the drinks station is outside in the lobby. And it could be said that Palmer’s stated desire to play a number of quiet, slow songs might have been somewhat optimistic once she’d been able to appraise the venue during set-up and soundcheck. But in the venue, on the night, when money has been paid for tickets and the artist in question is all but begging for silence and focus, it should be possible for adults to keep it down, at least during the actual playing and singing of the songs. Come on, mouth-breathers…
Interestingly, this aspect of the concert did not, as might be expected, ruin the general enjoyment of the music. That could be ascribed to Palmer’s extraordinary commitment to her craft, which was evident in a number of ways – the thunderous thumping of piano keys, accompanied by equally muscular rhythm keeping with a booted foot; entertaining mid-song improvisation; the ability to drop a planned schedule and accommodate yelled-out requests; or switching from growled, spat-out phrases to high-range operatic notes with no discernible change in effort. The main theme or emotion – sadness, anger, mischief, activism – in each song was communicated clearly in the way it was played and the range of facial expressions that Palmer added to her play (she has a cabaret performer’s flair for the dramatic, hilarious and even slightly sinister).
Constant connection with her audience and impassioned execution of her songs gave the set – mostly Palmer’s solo work, with a few tunes from her old band Dresden Dolls and a couple of cover versions – an almost unbroken stretch of distinctive and original (that rarest of superlatives) melodic energy. This is more memorable to watch, and much harder to present, than a traditional “play all these songs in a row” gig. And that, along with the angst of Palmer’s vexation with the venue challenges and her stubborn refusal to put in a little less effort in response to the few philistines who couldn’t be bothered to practice a touch more discretion, and the vulnerability that combination of factors created gave this show a rather more epic feel than even the singer-songwriter’s most ardent fans might have expected.