Shortly before the lights went down inside the Calvin Theatre in Northampton Friday, as the majority of audience members for the night’s Amanda Palmer show were still making the way to their seats, the strains of the song “No Surprises” by the English rock band Radiohead could be heard playing over the venue's public address system.
A slow-paced cut from the band’s 1997 album OK Computer, “No Surprises” wasn’t the most unexpected track a listener could hope to hear serenading the waiting crowd. A cover of the song played entirely on ukulele by Palmer even appeared on the 2010 release Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele. But on this night, the title of the tune was soon to be proven as a bit of a misnomer.
Instead of abiding by the typical concert format where one performer is typically followed by another playing well-rehearsed and time conscious sets, Friday’s show by Palmer was more like a three hour free-form performance piece consisting of one surprise followed by another. While Masslive.com/ the Republican chose to focus its music coverage on Eric Clapton’s appearance at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., the real “event” Friday was in the Paradise City.
So, how best to report the experience of witnessing such an unusual gig? Read below to check out a time-stamped chronology of the show.
7:58 p.m. – the lights inside the Calvin go down and instead of the already announced opening act ACLU Benefit (more on him in a moment), Palmer herself takes the stage in what resembles an oversized robe. With glass of wine in hand, she tells the audience that she has “no idea what she’s doing in her life,” and that she’s “out of practice playing music.” Her solution? She’s decided to bring some friends with her to play this show, and before leaving the stage she quickly introduces the first act/ friend of the night – ACLU Benefit (aka Noah Britton).
8:03 p.m. – Taking the stage with just an acoustic guitar, Britton, who is autistic and has been diagnosed with the disorder known as Asperger’s syndrome, begins his charming, too-short half-hour set with the song “Love Your Family” from his most recent record ACLU Benefit Awkwardly Performs with his Ex-Girlfriends, Live, May, 2010, at Silent Barn, Ridgewood, NY.
Filled with repeated variations of the question “How old do you have to get…,” the track is an off-beat delight that mixes comedy with overarching feelings of sadness and beauty, a combination of emotions that soon proves to be a Britton trademark, and he continues his set with several more numbers that walk a fine line between leaving members of the audience either rolling in the aisles or overcome with tears. One such highlight, “Duet,” even features a fight sequence that ends with a character in the song passing away due to the injuries he sustains from quarreling with another character.
Joined by Palmer for a cover of the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Britton closed his set with the songs “I Love You So Much” (also sung with Palmer), which was played in complete darkness, and “Country Suicide,” which he dubbed the winner of a “Sad Song contest” once held between him and Palmer.
8:33 – 8:46 p.m. – Strangely, instead of leaving the stage at the end of his set, Britton is invited to sit and chat with Palmer. The two share stories, swap jokes, and even discuss how they each approach writing songs. Then, it’s Amanda’s turn to sing and she kicks off her own part of the show with the song “Astronaut” from her solo debut Who Killed Amanda Palmer?
Reaching back even further in time, Palmer soon continued by playing the track “Missed Me,” which was originally performed by her former band the Dresden Dolls, and followed the number’s madcap cabaret tone by diving into the rarity “Straight,” which was originally released as a b-side.
In between tracks, Palmer took time to interact repeatedly with her fans. One adoring soul even stood up during a quieter moment in the show, and presented Palmer with a present before prefacing a request for a hug by asking for the performer's consent.
“Consent is important,” Palmer said before obliging. And with such crowd interaction in mind, the floor is soon opened up for requests.
9:26 p.m. – After a mesmerizing rendition of “The Bed Song” and another Dresden Dolls cut (“Mrs. O.”), Palmer steps away from her piano, and picks up her ukulele for the first time of the evening. Quipping, “I’ve written four songs for the ukulele that start exactly the same way, so if you’re excited by what you hear, you have a 25 percent chance of being right,” she plunges into the audience-participation favorite “Map of Tasmania.”
Featuring a call-and-response section with the lyrics, “Oh my God” and “Fuck it,” the song is sung along to by many, men included, and is joked about by Palmer who mentions its slight resemblance to the early ‘90s hit “Baby Got Back” by rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot.
9:39 p.m. – After an extended ukulele tuning and a take on “In My Mind” from 2011’s Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under, the show reaches another moment of audience participation when Palmer takes a vote to decide if there should be an intermission. Despite some fans strong wishes to make a run to the bathroom, the announcement that the Calvin is not allowing re-entry makes the outcome of the impromptu vote quickly lopsided, and Palmer segues the action by introducing her second special guest of the night – singer and songwriter Sarah Borello.
Though unknown to most in attendance, Borello no doubt gained many fans with the performance of her self-written track “Stranglehold.” Soon to be released on iTunes, the song featured attitude-filled vocals over pounding piano chords and when it was over several audience members honored it with standing ovations.
9:47 – 10:00 p.m. – Returning to the stage, Palmer sits down with Borello for a chat that finds the two sharing stories about their worst gigs. Hard to say who had it worse – Palmer’s tale of being hired to play music for a vampire ritual or Borello’s embarrassing story about her 15 year-old self performing at a gay bar, complete with sloppy kiss from vulgar lesbian comic.
After Borello leaves, Palmer tackles a cover of Bat For Lashes’ “Laura,” and earns cheers from the crowd for an energetic rendition of “Runs in the Family.” Then, it’s time for the final guest of the night.
10:11 p.m. – Joining Palmer on stage, singer and songwriter Cormac Bride left quite the impression on the Calvin crowd by playing his yet to be recorded song “Footsteps.” An acoustic number, the track featured soulful lyrics, and so moved one fan that underwear was thrown on the stage at the song’s end.
10:22 p.m. – Donning the freshly thrown undies as a hat, Bride sat down with Palmer for a wide-ranging discussion that included forays into the world of martial arts as well as songwriting. Taking time to pull the underwear off his head lest, “I say something smart and this ends up on YouTube,” Bride then dedicates the night’s next song (a duet with Palmer on her song “The Killing Type”) to Kurt Cobain, whose suicide he noted occurred 19 years ago to the day.
Watch video of Amanda Palmer and Cormac Bride performing “The Killing Type” live at the Calvin Theatre here:
Not quite ready to leave the stage, Bride stuck around to watch Palmer perform “Ampersand,” and then slipped off to the dressing room while she debuted a brand new song entitled “The Thing About Things.” Inspired by Palmer’s own borrowing of a bathing suit from a friend, the song employs a role reversal in which a friend is discussed as having borrowed an item from Palmer, but also goes on to include additional lyrics that meditate on the power possessions can have on people and the meaning individuals often attach to everyday items.
To close out her set, Palmer took to the front of the stage, ukulele in hand for a rousing version of the Radiohead song “Creep.” Perhaps as a result of a cold she’d been fighting, the singer wasn’t able to hit all the number’s high notes. But instead of admitting defeat, Palmer snatched victory from the clutches of failure by way of comedy, often laughing along with the audience during her attempts at mimicking Thom Yorke’s iconic vocals.
10:54-11:04 p.m. – Cresting the three hour mark, Palmer again picked up her ukulele for a one song encore. A b-side from her latest album Theatre Is Evil, “Ukulele Anthem” features repeated lines that encourage listeners to learn how to play the simple Hawaiian instrument, even going so far as to hypothesize that Sid Vicious would have led a far different life if only he had picked up a ukulele instead of another needle.
Even if the above idea is hard to fathom, the sheer imagining of such a possibility at least can put a smile on your face. And as those who were there when Amanda Palmer and company turned Northampton’s Calvin Theatre into their own personal playground can testify, there were more than enough smiles to go around. Now, surprises or no, couldn’t we all use more shows like that?
For more information on Amanda Palmer and to see future show dates please visit http://amandapalmer.net/.
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