Live Review: Amanda Palmer at Public Works, San Francisco

Posted by on Jul 18, 2012 | Comments (0)

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra. Photo by David Korman



Amanda Palmer is a dark traditionalist. Staying close to the inherent “rock” values of authenticity and performance, her song writing is ingenious. Filled with melancholy playfulness and longing for human understanding, her music seamlessly shifts between genres. Happier songs are laced with synth pop and air pianos, somber ballads combine orchestras with horns and ukuleles. Most notably, Palmer’s performances always captivate the energy of the audience. With as much taking as she is receiving, Amanda’s intensity translates into exceptional stage presence.

On this occasion, a private audience of Kickstarter campaign donators and selected invitees joined fans from the press to take part in Palmer’s current six-city international tour. Stopping in Berlin, London and New York the circuit is promoting her new album “Theatre Is Evil”, out September 2012 on 8ft Records. The album has sold nearly 25,000 pre-order copies via the digital funding platform. With a sold-out show the following night, Thursday’s attendees experienced the exhibit in rare intimate format.

The art space at Public Works is a long, winding closet of a gallery. Stemming off the side of the two-story warehouse on the eastern edge of San Francisco’s Mission District, the venue has become the dernier cri for contemporary art and performance.

The art gallery is a miniature carnival of visual sensation, the walls lined with work spanning photography and acrylics to audio Theremins and bed sheets. Favorites included a photographic series of nudists in black and white called “Bed Song” by Kyle Cassidy. Inspired by the sad song of the same name, it is about the slow deterioration of a long-term marriage. Another gem was a multicolored painting in marker on the pages of an old drum machine manual. Palmer introduced this piece as a brand new, never before seen work done by she and English novelist husband Neil Gaiman, all while in the nude.

Among these were abstract portraits and sketches, a signature red socialist poster by Shepard Fairey and the intense black and white lineation of Vladimir Zimikov. Several days later, I continue to have a lingering aversion, yet equal sense of fascination, with Nicole Duennebier’s “Portrait of Amanda Palmer”. The high Elizabethan collar of royalty coupled with beady haunting eyes and jagged teeth translate to a much darker portrayal of Palmer.

Amanda Palmer art exhibit at Public Works. Photo by David Korman

By and large, the work of these 30 different artists is provocative. It is unrestrained in so many disturbing and insightful ways, a lot like Palmer’s work itself. Attempting to understand the meaning of each piece becomes slightly uncomfortable. A feat based on tracing the work’s inspiration to specific songs while gauging the artist’s interpretation of Palmer herself. The show is so absorbing in fact, that people were filing through it repeatedly throughout the evening. As Amanda pointedly acknowledged: “Have a few drinks and go it see again, it’s different!”

The four-piece Grand Theft Orchestra opened the headlining set with a dark classical serenade, turning down the house lights and beckoning the roaming audience back into the hall. Suddenly, the warehouse went completely black and from far offstage the sound of a siren came closer, accompanied by the inline marching of her musical troupe. Buckets clanking  down into the circle of a cleared audience, the bustle of people eagerly gathering to see what’s going on got bigger. In the space, flashlights sent chaotic rays of light into the darkness lined only with deep neon blue stage lights. Amanda could be seen jetting around in a slinky gold satin dress, her fire magenta hair and long black gloves appeared like burning matchstick.

Enter in the visually haunting sound of a giant butchers knife, scraping up and down the long handle of a knife sharpener. “I’m not the killing type,” she sings in a menacingly romantic voice, “but I’d kill to make you feel”. As she hammers the blade down on the handle, she chimes in with the beat of the bucket. “My heart is exactly the size of a ruby diamond”, she sings, cutting out the heart of a beet while squeezing the juice on the floor.

Act one concluded with wild audience applause. People faces shifting from the tense formation of fear to the exuberance of screaming cheers. Amanda then fled the scene and could be heard running up the stairs, stomping along the wooden loft above and into some far off room. Suddenly the patter of bare feet came running across the ceiling again, down the stairs and Amanda came jumping through the seated crow. She promptly pulled out a tiny red piano and began to play Nirvana’s Polly. Of all the cover songs I have ever heard live, this was one of the most moving.

The evening went on to feature the interactive  “Walk On the Wild Side” by Lou Reed with Palmer combing the crowd, fondling and serenading fans. Then the brass heavy “Massachusetts Avenue” off her new album and a wonderful duo with husband Niel Gaiman entitled “You Think I’m Psycho Don’t you Mama”, a Leon Payne cover.

Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra ended the evening with her signature album track, “Want It Back”, marching through the crowd, megaphone in hand. Perfectly engaged with the audience, Amanda adopts us as her muse so that every show is different. And her fans love her for it, even while she abandons them to decipher the fantastical, erratic visual interpretations of her songs.


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