4.7 STARS OUT OF 5 (Want to know exactly what our star ratings mean? Check out our explanations here.) (Warning: some links lead to NSFW images)
I have seen Palmer several times — twice with the Dresden Dolls, once as part of the Who Killed Amanda Palmer tour, and at An Evening With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman in 2015. Previous shows were always spectacles; there would be burlesque and circus performers, and friends and family would join both from the audience and onstage to create multi-layered visual theatre. Until now, Palmer hadn’t headlined since the tour with Gaiman, performing instead with friends.
I had never seen her perform alone with a piano. For all her audience immersion, this was almost too close for comfort. This was a living live blog feed. We were part of the moment.
Just after the main doors opened, while I waited to enter the theatre proper, I saw Amanda walk by. I recognized Jason Webley and several other names in punk cabaret trailing her. Minutes later, a crowd had formed; Justin Therrien, best known for holding the Guinness World Record “Longest String Passed Through the Nose and Mouth in One Minute,” put on an astounding set of traditional mime movement and sword swallowing. Webley, of Seattle street performing fame, accompanied on accordion in the background. Amanda was three feet from me, recording video, and she continued recording as she ascended the stairs and vanished backstage. Webley and Therrien ended their performance by announcing plans to build a raft for circus performers which will float up the Willamette River this summer to play free shows at each town they stop in along the way.
There was no opening band, just an introduction from Jason before Palmer, who had hidden herself within the crowd, ascended the stage. The show opened with “Girl Anachronism,” one of the earliest Dresden Dolls songs to make it into indie playlists. She ended by saying that song was written out of pure rage, and that it was probably going to be the lightest moment of the night. “If anyone here is feeling fragile or like they may be triggered, good. I hope something in tonight’s performance helps.” She then began a four-hour story, through word and song, of her goal of writing the perfect song about abortion. Although much of the story had been told through her blog, hearing it was different.
She talked about her childhood, learning to play piano, and early sexual trauma. She said early on if things got too dark we could yell “Amanda, it’s too sad!” at which time she would play 8 bars of “Coin Operated Boy.” After a certain point, though, the only way out of the emotional mess we were all wading in was through. Palmer talked about all the times she tried to write songs about abortion; she revisited the Dresden Dolls “Mandy Goes To Med School,” a punk cabaret tale of back-alley clinics. Eventually, after several more songs telling stories and filling in context, we were treated to “Oasis“; a song which was banned during several European shows. She talked about how hard it had been to get pushback about the song from not just the right, but also the left, with the accusation that she was making light out of such a dark topic as abortion. I greatly appreciated her quote, “What is my job, as an artist, if not to bring lightness out of the dark?”
I was amazed by the range of songs that were played, from early Dresden Dolls to pieces from the new album to a cover of “Part Of Your World” from Little Mermaid. At last, after hearing the heart-wrenching stories of Palmer experiencing miscarriage, the loss of her best friend, and the feeling that her art had abandoned her, with some surprisingly uplifting reflections on motherhood, the experience came to what we, her audience, had been promised. She talked about being in Glasgow as Ireland decriminalized abortion, and how many women there were saying that, as an American, Amanda couldn’t possibly understand why they were celebrating. Irish women were dying, they were being denied healthcare and Amanda said, “Maybe you don’t know America like you think you do.”
Which is when “Voicemail For Jill” found its voice, the song she had spent her career trying to write manifested. For what an interactive and chaotic audience we had been, the Paramount fell silent.
The show closed with the song she had promised us she wouldn’t sing, a cover of “Let it Go from Frozen.” After the darkness we had been bought through, hearing an entire audience laugh and cry their way through such a silly song was incredibly heartening. Palmer had no way of knowing when she wrote “Voicemail For Jill”s the laws that would begin being drafted around the country weeks later, and that by the time her tour came around, this nation would be in an uproar concerning abortion and women’s bodily autonomy. Of course, there were songs I wish had been performed, but Amanda Palmer creates theater, and theater is not guaranteed to be comfortable. With topics and times like these, there are no intermissions, only the transgressive and constant “making light of the darkness.”