Monday 14 September 2009

Amanda Palmer - Union Chapel 11th September 2009

Amanda Palmer by Martyn Foster
It’s sometimes hard to time your entrance into a venue, particularly if you have not been there for a while.

I have not been to the Union Chapel for probably more than a decade, so when I arrive at around 7.45 and am ushered upstairs I do not think anything of it. As it turns out I am among what at this point are only a handful of folk who have the entire run of the balcony and am able to sit more or less over directly over the stage and get a great view of events below.

The pews below are filled to capacity. In fact some of them appear to be over-filled, with more than one person occupying the same space. A closer look reveals that quite a few of the early audience have brought puppets with them and that some of these are very large and elaborate. A fair number of the audience appear to be in fancy dress too. Such is the nature of fandom.

We are here tonight to see a performance by Amanda Palmer, punk pianist extraordinaire, who is playing a few London shows apparently just for the hell of it, as her solo album came out last year and her other band The Dresden Dolls (hence the puppets) are between projects at the moment.

However, before Miss Palmer, we have Miss Polly Scattergood to entertain us.

Teetering around the stage in bright pink boots and with an enormous plume of feathers sprouting from her shoulder, it would be easy to dismiss Polly as one of those delicate and eccentric young women who have taken Kate Bush to their hearts to an almost unhealthy degree (see also Natasha Khan or Alison Goldfrapp ).

It is also tempting to say that her surname is a firm signifier of her talent, because the standard of her singing and material varies quite drastically between one song and the next. She is never less than interesting, but her breathy voice is so weak that it can barely sustain a note. The acoustics in this venue does her no favours, as much of what she sings is lost somewhere in the void over the audience.

She is received warmly though, and when she is joined by her band, she seems happier and less exposed.

Amanda Palmer is what used to be called a Damned Good Act, in that there seems very little that she cannot turn her hand to. This evening she starts with a couple of tunes played on the chapel organ, invisible to most of the crowd, but not from my lofty, lucky position.

Running centre stage, she sits down at her keyboard and starts banging out a set of mixed Dresden Dolls and solo material. She admits to being out of practice because she is not in the middle of a tour, and that she has had to familiarise herself with her back catalogue by listening to the CDs beforehand.

Indeed, almost her first act is to rip up her provisional set list and just proceed as the mood takes her. Nerves are soon put behind her, as she takes requests from the audience - if you want your song sung it helps to have a puppet.

This flying-by-the-seat-of-her pants approach is really charming, and it is to her credit that she can pull it off. She talks of her boyfriend, the author Neil Gaiman, and even sings a song that he has written, called “I Googled You” – it is the only time of the evening when the ick-factor gets ramped up.

Having stopped to announce that she is going to play two long ballads, Amanda is struck by the realisation that she is playing in a church on September 11th, and instead plays a quiet tune about New York City.

Later, she tests out a piece of classical music that she has learned, for no other reason than to prove to herself that she can play ‘proper’ music.

Polly Scattergood makes a guest appearance up on a balcony, singing a husky, torch song version of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ which brings out the full despair and horror of the song that has traumatised children for years.

Somehow, Palmer gets through her set and has played all her hits – ‘Ampersand’ ‘Runs in the Family’ and ‘Backstabber’ are particularly good.

For an encore it is Amanda’s turn on the balcony, her leg swinging precariously over the edge as she strums a ukulele and croons a languid version of ‘Makin’ Whoopee’, before charging back down and blasting through ‘Oasis’ with the assistance of Polly Scattergood and her band.

It has been an enchanting evening, with the ever charming Amanda Palmer an excellent hostess. In her hands, tonight we are all puppets.

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