Amanda Palmer @ Sydney Opera House (26/01/2011)
Less a concert than an old style cabaret variety show, this Australia day extravaganza saw the hallowed concert hall festooned with a hills hoist, a functioning Weber barbecue, VB cartons arranged into the letters ‘AFP’ and all manner of stage outfits, feather boas, capes and a galaxy of glitzy stage wear. It’s a sight to behold, a style described by tonight’s host as “bogans versus art fags”.
Festivities kick off with The Jane Austen Argument, a boy-girl duo whose sprawling, funny and melodramatic songs are somewhere between Eddie Perfect and Rufus Wainwright. They’re seriously good musicians, but never fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously, a description that could also be applied to the inimitable Mikelangelo and The Black Sea Gentlemen, who also appear on and off as Palmer’s backing band throughout the night.
Blessed with a booming voice and the most impressive sideburns since Elvis played Vegas, Mikelangelo makes for a striking frontman and his band, who all look like villains from a film noir and play like devils. With wailing violin, thudding double bass and a well-rehearsed repertoire of pratfalls and one-liners all part of the mix, they’re ridiculous, entertaining and completely unlike any other band you’ve ever seen.
As well as acting as a kind of ringmaster of this circus, Amanda Palmer is very much the star of proceedings and remains a force of nature, funny and offbeat as ever, at various points rolling around the floor trying to undo a bottle of VB with the ruffles of her dress, talking excitedly about meeting Nick Cave or bemoaning her inability to eat vegemite, or, as she calls it, “death paste”.
There’s also some fierce, inspired music amongst the madness, with frantic versions of Dresden Dolls songs like Sex Changes and Coin Operated Boy pleasing the crowd, many of whom dressed up like their hero in their best cabaret wear. The defiant In My Mind is an outsider anthem, while Missed Me sees Palmer stalking through the audience to find people to make out. “Who’s single?” she demands at one point. Seemingly hundreds of hands are raised instantly.
A video of comedy cabaret star Miaow Miaow singing the Split Enz classic I Hope I Never is a rare underwhelming moment, but the jokes, tunes and costume changes keep coming thick and fast. A change of pace and tone is provided by Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman, who reads a short fable-like story from her book Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and follows this with an impromptu reading of a poem he had written in her honour (sample line: “she fucks like wildcats in thunderstorms”).
This being Australia Day, and a show in support of new release ‘Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under’, there’s a strong antipodean focus throughout, from an icily beautiful cover of On an Unknown Beach, just piano and a wispy melody, and the set closer, one of the greatest songs ever written by an Australian, Nick Cave’s The Ship Song, sung by Palmer from the stands of the concert hall.
But there’s still more in a night packed with laughter and surprises as go-go dancers take over the stage for the epic silliness of new single Map of Tasmania and a gleeful rendition of Oasis. I never knew where this show was headed next. A totally different kind of Australia day celebration.