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If there’s two things Boston-bred artist Amanda Palmer has, it’s theatrics and gratitude. Both of these were at their finest last night at the Middle East Downstairs, where she played a show to fans who pledged $300 and above to her now-famous Kickstarter project, Theater Is Evil with the Grand Theft Orchestra. Palmer’s played all around Boston since her college years, but this performance felt startlingly personal; the stage took the backseat for the majority of the show as she and her band walked to the center of the Downstairs floor and performed with instruments as simple as buckets, watering cans, and loudspeakers in a stripped-down set like no other. Lit by only the flashlights she handed to choice audience members, the whole show felt like a bizarre musical séance gone right.
Of course, the big reason Palmer is touring right now is as a thank you to the fans who helped her become the first artist to raise a million dollars free of the music system on Kickstarter, and has been playing shows specifically for benefactors during this summer tour. An intimate show with no more than a hundred people in attendance, fans were able to get an up close and personal opportunity to hear some of Palmer’s early work, a little from the new album, and some of the strangest covers one can imagine. The night before the end of the North American leg of her tour (next week brings her to Edinburgh with husband Neil Gaiman), Palmer and the band had it down to a science—she performed “The Bed Song” from her debut solo effort Who Killed Amanda Palmer? complete with a rehearsed routine, using a sheet to demonstrate the waxing and waning of the relationship she sings about.
Her band consisted of the traditional guitar-drum setup with additional strings and accordion for accompaniment, and the orchestra just seemed to get it—Palmer’s style of performance is the type that can be doomed if all involved aren’t on the same page, but every member of the group were on board with proving that theater was alive and well in Cambridge. If the Grand Theft Orchestra commanded attention, the audience fascinated even more; Palmer specified that her Kickstarter shows are to be all ages so that younger fans could attend, and the group crowded around her were anywhere from thirteen-year-olds in fishnets and barrettes to seventy-year-old men with wizardly beards in their Sunday finest. In the moment, no one looked or felt out of place, and that’s a testament more to Palmer’s philosophy on art and acceptance than the actual music she’s playing. It’s an acquired taste, without a doubt, blending the cabaret with elements of pop and punk that could easily appeal to a very specific crowd, but her public persona has been one of such openness, creativity, and encouragement to people of all sizes, genders, and preferences, expanding her reach far beyond the niche crowd. She enlisted people from the audience to assist during the private show with a woman to hold the keytar here or her impromptu lighting directors dispersed throughout the audience while singing “Last Christmas” by George Michael through a megaphone. It never occurred to me to wonder how she makes that type of performance work until long after I’d come up for air in the dank downstairs venue—Palmer is living proof that a confident performer can make anything a part of the show without raising an eyebrow.
Other highlights of the performance included when the Orchestra made themselves known (the electric accordion was my favorite), a stirring and often funny interpretation of Elvis Costello’s “Psycho”, and Palmer’s wrapping up the show with a tripped-out version of “Walk on the Wild Side”. She twirled through the audience in a fake cocaine stupor as she sang, stopping to touch someone’s face and say, “You know, they did all sort of interesting drugs in the seventies” before snapping back into her Lou Reed character without missing a beat. With theater chops on par with her musical talents, it’s no surprise that Palmer holds a Best of Boston Award from 2011 for her gender-bending performance in an A.R.T. production of Cabaret. Since her start in the early 2000’s with the Dresden Dolls, her entire career has been a successful experiment of making music theater, and incorporating that theater into her everyday life and persona.
Before leaving to change out of her silk nightie and back into jeans and a t-shirt for an extended meet and greet, Amanda Palmer thanked the crowd for the umpteenth time, a tired smile stretched across her face. “It’s times like this that I’m so happy to have the life I have, and the people that I’m surrounded with,” she said, throwing her arm around her tour manager and thanking the ten-piece Grand Theft Orchestra one by one. This tour was a testament to the power of independence from a record label and the importance of a fan in the twenty-first century—the concert-goers mulled around in their Alice in Wonderland-like costume after the show, chatted about the new album, and convinced everyone around them (myself included) to get their tickets for her three-show engagement at the Paradise Rock Club this November. Two gigantic tours in one year without the financial backing of a label? This is only a feat for the inexhaustible, vulnerable, supremely unique Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra, who prove that theater may be evil, but it’s certainly not dead.
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