I’m loath to compare anything to a box of chocolates, but Amanda Palmer gigs do come close. The choice as to what you might get ranges from the likelihood of a soft-centred collaboration with her husband Neil Gaiman, to the slightly bitter aftertaste of something from 2010’s ill-advised Evelyn Evelyn project.
She certainly still draws an adoring and excitable crowd. Heaven is packed to the rafters, sweat condensing in the air and splashing off the lighting rig. The audience, heavy on the goth-grunge-cabaret sartorial confections, seems to hold as many first-timers dragged along by friends (and later turned converts) as it does veterans. The stage is pretty crowded too. Dressed in glittery metallic scraps and Adam Ant-esque facepaint, Palmer busies herself with showcasing her new backing band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, and giving hat-tips to a host of session musicians and special guests. There’s a fair amount of new material tonight, which she asks that we refrain from uploading as it’s still work in progress (her reasoning here is less anti-downloading reactionary and more nervous perfectionism). This shaky self-effacement is apparent in much of her crowd interactions – as is her tendency towards the self-consciously absurd, like the callisthenics routine she inflicts upon the audience in preparation for dancing to her new material.
Despite the familiar themes present in the lyrics – alienation, neurosis and overcoming the adversity of both – the new songs appear to follow a more upbeat path than her previous work, sounding reflective and even quietly content at times, quite at odds with the violent dissatisfaction of her Dresden Dolls oeuvre. There’s little enough of that tonight; the high drama of ‘Missed Me’ and ‘Girl Anachronism’ are hammered out as the second and third song in, the former’s sly playfulness letting it breathe and stopping it from toppling into melodrama, the latter more straightforwardly cathartic. ‘Delilah’, performed with support band Bitter Ruin, throbs with its usual protective ache. There are also some choice cuts from her solo album. The vulnerability turned near-invincibility of ‘Runs In The Family’ and ‘Oasis’ bring down the house just before the encore, and a gleefully hysteric ‘Leeds United’ provides the gig’s triumphant curtain-closer.
Thinking about it, why shouldn’t Palmer be quietly, or even noisily, content these days? Even if she’s not yet a household name, her elevated cult status seems assured. Her relationship with Gaiman is a fairly constant presence – he joins her onstage for the brisk and percussive ‘The Problem With Saints’ – and she’s able to call up a higher calibre of celebrity guests (Tim Minchin and Tom Robinson in this case, the latter for a rendition of ’Glad To Be Gay’ which barely needs updating to express its continued relevance). What with her danceable new stuff and her penultimate cover of Simple Minds’ ’Don’t You Forget About Me’, there’s a distinctly ’80s flavour to Palmer’s performance, and while her music certainly remains something of an acquired taste Palmer herself is a quietly addictive persona.
Having followed up Who Killed Amanda Palmer with a series of polarising novelty releases (Evelyn Evelyn, the Radiohead ukulele covers, the appalling Australia album), Palmer needs now to try something more substantial. It remains to be seen whether the creative output of someone who, to all intents and purposes, has had many of her dreams come true can be as compelling and sympathetic as the songs of someone struggling to achieve them.