The Dresden Dolls
November 4, 2017 @ Paradise Rock Club
By: Laura Shrago and Clio Fleece
The venue was packed full of people sporting everything from punk clothes to mom jeans, to Amanda Palmer’s iconic thinly drawn eyebrows. People waiting for the concert were friendly and willing to make conversation with strangers, foreshadowing the conversational nature of the performance we were about to witness. The stage was ready with a flower-adorned piano and covered drum set – the only two tools involved in most of the Dresden Dolls’ songs.
The crowd started screaming before Clio and I could even spot Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione. With no opener, they walked out on stage to greet the crowd, doing a bow before Amanda took her seat at the piano and Brian at the drums. They had their signature theatrical makeup – Amanda with bright eyeshadow and harsh blush, and Brian with mime-makeup.
Quickly after sitting down, the gentle piano arpeggios and shimmery drum intro to ‘Girl Anachronism’ began before diving into the insanity that is the rest of the song. The intensity of the loud and fast song was a powerful opener, with red and white strobe lights taking over the venue. They continued with ‘Dirty Business’ and ‘Missed Me’, while the audience sang along to the quick and clever lyrics. After the song ended, Brian started chucking handfuls of candy into the crowd as Amanda jokingly told them they shouldn’t take candy from strange men. She then asked the crowd if anyone had been at their show the night before, and when most people didn’t raise their hands or cheer, she remarked “so no repeat victims?” This was the beginning of the witty banter that ended up being a large part of their performance; the on-stage dynamic of the duo was sweet and kept the audience laughing out loud.
“Brian have you ever been in musicals?” started off this particular bout of dialogue, where we all witnessed Amanda learning for the first time that Brian had been a theatre kid in high school. This seems quite unsurprising given his theatrics during the songs without a drum part; regardless of whether or not he was playing, he was always involved in the performance via dramatic body language and facial expressions as an interpretative accompaniment.
The show was more of an experience than a performance – the lights were so coordinated with the music, down to the detail of having a flash of light on an accented note, creating a really immersive musical experience for anyone in the space. The combination of the precise technical elements and the casual, friendly nature of their onstage presence made for a compelling show with a lot of depth into the band’s identity.
“Next is a cheerful song about abortion. I’ve written a couple of cheerful songs about abortion.” Politics was certainly not off limits, given the content of many songs by the Dresden Dolls or by Amanda Palmer as a solo artist. “Abortion can be bad but not worse than the people outside protesting,” she declared before doing ‘Mandy Goes to Med School’, a jazzy song about a man who is viewed as a full-package kind of guy while actually being an abuser. The song is sly but has a classic sound, showing the group’s versatility. She then yelled “Hallelujah!” and threw a sole piece of candy into the crowd.
By this point, the show was feeling very intimate. We had witnessed several casual conversations between Amanda and Brian, and they had responded to specific shouts from the audience throughout the night. She mentioned that the night before, they played for three hours, but that in fairness, forty minutes of it was just her talking. She said she wouldn’t do that again for this show. (She was wrong.)
She dedicated her next song, ‘Mrs. O’, to the fake news, explaining that it was both inspiring and disturbing that songs she wrote in 2003 are even more relatable now. After, Amanda accused Brian of spreading “fake news” when he said his mallets broke. Amanda then reminded everyone, “Just for the record: I hate our president. Just to be fair, I fucking hate that guy.”
After somehow arriving at a moment of comic relief where she and Brian played the first ten seconds of the 2001: Space Odyssey theme, she performed the dark song, ‘Glass Slipper’, about the strip club in Boston of the same name where she used to work. The song was emotional, and some of the intense parts, you could even see spit flying from her mouth.
Brian switched to an electric guitar and they performed an expressive rendition of Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’, which was unexpected and incredibly poignant. We even noticed that the club’s security guy stationed next to the stage had his jaw hanging open the entire time in shock. They then did a complete one-eighty with the tone of the concert and played the Ramones’ ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’ where Amanda switched to drums (and kazoo), and they invited a bunch of people to come dance on stage. At this point, the show’s structure started to dissolve.
They offered to play the first three seconds of any eighties song which caused chaos where the audience was screaming all at once with the band trying to decipher the suggestions. Amanda then suggested “What about nineties?” which stirred up another round of screaming, which she eventually stopped by deciding to do ‘Napoleon’ by Ani DiFranco, someone who she explained was one of the most underrated female singers of the nineties. While the guitar strummed in the background softly, Amanda talked about her upbringing in Lexington, MA and what it was like to return to the suburbs when she visits.
After that, they regained a semblance of structure and returned to their original setlist, performing a new song entitled ‘Small Hands, Small Heart’ about you-know-who. On Amanda Palmer’s website, it explains that all the song’s proceeds are going to Mariafund.org to help with hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. They ended with ‘Half Jack’, a passionate and vocally impressive song about growing up with divorced parents, then joined hands to bow before leaving the stage.
They returned to the stage not even two minutes later, Amanda with an open beer in hand this time, and Brian with an acoustic guitar. Amanda held her beer on top of her head while talking about the song they were about to perform, ‘Amsterdam’ by John Denver. Their sea-shanty-like cover had Amanda emphatically swaying on stage to the rhythm and running around the club – up the balcony and through the lower audience level. She ended up back on stage holding her beer up high in triumph, with liquid shooting out the top all over the stage and audience as she sang. She inserted an introspective comment about seeing people in the audience from her past, then a golf joke about the president, and finally a plug for voting on Tuesday before doing their final two songs.
They performed ‘Coin Operated Boy’ before commenting that they passed their curfew for the venue and that people who want to buy merch have to go fast, but “fuck capitalism, it’s okay”. They ended with the slow, melancholy but hopeful ‘Sing’, with soft blue lighting and gentle piano and heartfelt vocals. They said goodnight, bowed, and exited, leaving us feeling like we had spent the night with friends who shared their personal art and thoughts with us. It was a catharsis for the band and the audience as well.