Amanda Palmer in Bristol

Given that there is a reasonable chance that Neil and/or Amanda will read this, I should probably start with a disclaimer: I am not a musician. When I’m reviewing books I know that I can art least string a competent sentence together. Reviewing music is another matter entirely. I have about as much chance of being on stage as a musician as I do of challenging Usian Bolt in a sprint. However, I very much enjoy listening to music, and I know a thing or two about staging events. Please read what follows with that in mind.

I’ll start with a few words about the venue. the O2 Academy in Bristol is just off Park Street in an area best known for gay bars. It is not as big as the main stage at Colston Hall, but equally it has far more room than the secondary stage where I have seen Jonathan Coulton perform. Significantly, it does not have seating. This is a venue for people who have come to dance.

The bouncers confiscated a (plastic) bottle of water that one of my friends had with her. This was odd because the bar gave us (plastic) glasses of water for free once we were inside. Maybe the bouncers thought the bottle contained something other than water. They also confiscated my microphone, which I tend to carry with me everywhere in case I need to interview someone. They did not confiscate my camera or phone, both of which were equally capable of recording the event. Still, at least they gave the microphone back afterwards.

There weren’t many people ahead of us in the queue, but by the time we got inside the gig was already underway. While she was at Glastonbury, Amanda made friends with a band called Perhaps Contraption. They describe themselves as, “an astonishing, twisted brass, avant pop marching band”, to which I would only add that they have something of a steampunk look to them, though that may not be intentional. Their instruments are all acoustic (I remember seeing tuba, trumpet, French horn, trombone, saxophone, oboe, glockenspiel, flute and drums) and they performed in the center of the main floor with the audience stood around them. They really are astonishing. If you get a change to see them perform, do so.

When they had finished their set, Amanda came out into the floor to thank them and encourage people to buy their music. That wasn’t the last we saw of them, however. They got a chance to add join in on several songs throughout the rest of the evening. Some people will doubtless see this as another example of Amanda “exploiting” other musicians, but from where I was stood on the floor I could see into the wings to the right of the stage. Several of the members of Perhaps Contraption were stood there all evening having a great time listening to the other acts. They were clearly having a great time, and hopefully they got a bunch of new fans from the evening.

Next up was Jherek Bischoff, who is the base player for Amanda’s band, the Grand Theft Orchestra. Yes, he got his own set, and the stuff he does on his own is very different to what he does with Amanda. It didn’t surprise me to discover, afterwards, that he’s been working with David Byrne.

Amanda had some time to kill in Bristol before the gig, and some spare tickets she wanted to give away, so she headed out to a coffee shop in Park Street (Boston Tea Party, of course), accosted some random strangers, and got tweeting. Shortly thereafter a man approached her to say thanks for giving his wife wickets, and noting that he was a juggler. Amanda took a look at him, and decided that he looked sufficiently weird to fit into the show. Which is how we ended up seeing a short set from Rod Laver. The guy doesn’t just juggle; he juggles with his mouth. I was well impressed. After the show I got his contact details. He’s local and I want to get him on Ujima.

The lead guitarist of the Grand Theft Orchestra, Chad Raines, also has his own band, The Simple Pleasure. His music was described to me after the set as a cross between Funkadelic and Glee. Chad certainly does have the funk, and he’s an absolute bundle of energy. Check out his albums on Bandcamp if you want to know more.

We only got one song from Bitter Ruin, which I was rather sad about. Georgia did guest vocals on a couple of song for Amanda, so maybe Ben was ill or something. Anyway, they were sorely missed.

Eventually it was time for Amanda and the Grand Theft Orchestra to take the stage. They opened with a furious rendition of “Do it with a Rock Star”, and Amanda flung herself into the crowd. From that moment on they were hers. Not that most of them had not been all along, of course. A good part of the audience seemed to know the words of all the songs better than I did. In no time the floor was hopping. And tweeting. And taking video that they uploaded to YouTube from their phones. The media, it is us.

Of course you can’t keep the show going to full speed all night. Eventually Amanda stopped to chat. There may have been mention of the Daily Malice, and of feminism. Amanda then dedicated the next song to the State of Texas. Yes, it was “Oasis”.

Chad and the band’s drummer, the delightfully named Thor Harris, are both from Texas. They are from Austin, of course, which makes a whole world of difference, but Chad figured that he really ought to stand up for the good name of his home state. He muttered something to the effect that if people kept being rude about The South he might have to play “Free Bird”. The audience must have included quite a few older people like me, because we immediately took him up on it, and sang along.

Lynyrd Skynyrd are, of course, from Alabama. This lead the band into a discussion of The Doors (Amanda is right, Chad and Jherek are very wrong) and a decision to play “Alabama Song”. The whole thing might have been staged, but if it was I’ll be very surprised, because there was clearly no staging imperative for the band to spend time reminding each other which chords to play. I’m guessing that they have played it before, and Amanda knew all of the words, but the decision to do so was entirely impromptu.

Diversion over, the band got back to playing their own songs, and after several more high speed numbers they too a well earned break. Amanda sat and talked, and played the ukelele. We got an acoustic version of “Map of Tasmania”, after which Amanda played what she said was a new song. It wasn’t the first time she has played it, but there’s no band arrangement as yet. It is called “Bigger on the Inside”, and no, it isn’t about the TARDIS. Here she is playing it at Billy Bragg’s Leftfield at Glasto. Listen.

The band came back for the finale. They played a wonderful cover of Pulp’s “Common People”. They also played “Leeds United”. Georgia from Bitter Ruin and Perhaps Contraption joined in. “Leeds United” is a song that pretty much requires a brass section, which normally the band wouldn’t have. Perhaps Contraption fitted the requirement perfectly, and each instrument was given its own brief solo. It was magnificent.

All in all we got four hours of entertainment. Amanda was on stage for around two hours, and afterwards she hung around by the merch stand chatting to fans for as long as she could, given that Security really wanted us out and the band had to drive to Birmingham overnight. Just like Neil, Amanda works amazingly hard at earning her fans.

I note also that Amanda put a lot of effort into promoting everyone else who was involved. The typical rock show involves some unknown group playing a warm-up set, after which they are never seen again. Amanda said to me afterwards that she hates sharing the stage with strangers. Anyone who is part of the show is part of the Amanda Palmer family for the night, and everyone gets a chance to shine. It may not have been as 100% polished as a prog rock stadium tour, and frankly I don’t think that Amanda’s show would work so well at that level, but there was an awful lot of smart, sexy musicians having smart, sexy fun (to shamelessly steal from Justina Robson’s blurb) going on. This wasn’t a show with Amanda as the big-name celebrity that everyone else is there to make look good; it was a circus for which Amanda was both Ringmaster and the star attraction.

I had a fabulous time. And from what I saw from the crowd, and reactions on Twitter, everyone else did too. Amanda is playing Edinburgh tomorrow and Dublin on Thursday. There are tickets available. Get there if you can.

Update: I’ve been reminded that something else Amanda did (and apparently has a habit of doing at gigs) is that before the show she went out and bought a bunch of books and hid them around the venue. Anyone who found a book could keep it. That’s classy.

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