LIVE: Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra @ Bard College, 9/5/12

Review by Greg Haymes

It was a surprisingly intimate concert in the Fisher Center’s small black box Theater Two. A standing-room-only (no seats) performance that resonated with the memories of almost any college gymnasium concert – fans sitting on the floor, listening to the vintage Leonard Cohen soundtrack that played between bands.

Intimate, yes, indeed, but no less fierce than you’ve come to expect from the always bold and brazen Amanda Fucking Palmer.

Wrapping up her three-week residency – the first participant in the Live Arts Bard program at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson – she was simply breathtaking in performance on the first of her two-night stand with her primo three-piece backing band, the Grand Theft Orchestra.

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Wearing a floor-length white satin gown, she made her entrance through the crowd, carried atop the shoulders of drummer Michael McQuilken, and after a brief overture-like instrumental interlude launched into “Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen),” the first of a dozen songs that she previewed from her new album, Theatre Is Evil, which landed in stores today (Tuesday, September 11).

While GTO – also featuring guitarist-keyboardist Chad Raines and bassist-musical director Jherek Bischoff – provided all the firepower that Palmer’s ferocious songs required, the band did indeed blossom into near-orchestral size with the addition of the string quartet Contemporaneous, as well as a five-piece horn section on several songs. (Palmer apparently plans to bolster GTO with pick-up strings and horn players throughout her tour.)

Songs like the surprisingly hopeful “Lost” and the confessional, waltz-time narrative “The Bed Song” (Palmer’s only solo turn) were stand-outs in the nearly two-hour performance, the centerpiece of the show was unquestionably the back-to-back pairing of the love-gone-wrong power ballad “Grown Man Cry” and the devastating, raw vulnerability of “Trout Heart Replica.”

The songs from Theatre Is Evil resonated with a deep echo of ’80s new wave, and Palmer allowed such heart-on-her-sleeve influences as Lene Lovich, David Bowie and Broken English-era Marianne Faithfull to permeate much of the new material. Between “The Killing Type” and “Want It Back,” Palmer peeled off her white gown down to her waist, revealing a black bustier emblazoned with an iconic portrait of Klaus Nomi.

While the focus was squarely on the new album, AFP&GTO also reached back to her Dresden Dolls days with the thrashy punk of “Girl Anachronism” and the dark Kurt Weill-esque goth-cabaret of “Missed Me,” in which Palmer and her bandmembers gleefully switched instruments not once, but twice. (It was a hoot to watch Palmer try to jump behind the drum kit in her gown.)

And emphasizing the ’80s aesthetic of her new album, Palmer tossed in a couple of vintage cover songs, too – Yaz’s “In My Room” and a romp through George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” (Really? Yup!).

By the time the show was wrapping up with “Olly Olly Oxen Free,” Palmer was back where she started – out in the audience, singing and dancing with her devoted fans.

Led by singer-songwriter Johanna Warren, the shimmering quartet Sticklips kicked off the evening with a showcase of several selections from their brand new album, “Zemi.” The music was hypnotic, something like a mash-up or Red House Painters and the Sundays or perhaps the Cranberries on quaaludes.

And GTO’s brilliant bassist Jherek Bischoff also chimed in with an absolutely captivating six-song support set of chamber-art songs, including a delicious as-yet-untitled instrumental for ukulele and string quartet, “Eyes” (also featuring his GTO bandmates as well as the audience singing the bass line) and a cover from the songbag of Africa band Konono No. 1.

Yeah, my head’s still spinning…

ALSO SEE:
Review and photographs of Neil Gaiman’s pre-concert reading (with a special guest performance by Amanda Palmer)

AMANDA PALMER & THE GRAND THEFT ORCHESTRA SET LIST
Overture
Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)
The Killing Type
Want It Back
Missed Me (Desden Dolls)
Grown Man Cry
Trout Heart Replica
Bottomfeeder
Lost
Girl Anachronism (Desden Dolls)
The Bed Song
In My Room (Yaz)
Careless Whisper (George Michael)
Berlin
Massachusetts Avenue
Olly Olly Oxen Free
ENCORE
Leeds United

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