Sometimes the universe comes through just when you need it to.
Saturday, August 13, 2022, was one of those times.
Amanda Palmer is HIGH on my list of favorite musicians and I hadn’t seen her perform live since April of 2019 (or as many of us like to call it, the before times).
I saw her last weekend at the Old Dutch Church in Kingston, New York.
It was there that I laughed, cried, applauded, cheered and felt each note to my core.
I did all the things. This was a full-service show.
I mean for Christ sake, I even got a chiropractic treatment during the pre-show reception by a gentleman who was entirely kind to me and understood that my body, heart and mind needed help. It was part one of the healing experience that happened that night.
This show was an emotional booster shot. I’m stronger for it and I’m so thankful for that.
Despite a creepy hotel debacle and despite the fact that my car broke down in Massachusetts on the way back to Maine from New York on Sunday it was worth driving more than 600 miles.
Permit me to tell you why.
The performance was a benefit for 0+ based in Kingston. Their mission is to empower communities to take control of their collective well being through the exchange of art, music and wellness.
From their site:
“Underinsured artists and musicians create and perform in exchange for a variety of services donated by doctors, dentists and complementary care providers. O+ (pronounced O Positive) calls this exchange the art of medicine for the medicine of art.”
So yeah, O+ is the bomb and I was happy to support them.
Actor, MC and creater of the non-profit arts organization Chris Wells played host for the evening and rallied the audience to shout out their suggestions to make the world a better place. A poem might surface from him from the notes he took. He also led us all in a massive primal scream session. Those church walls absorbed a lot that night, that’s for shit sure.
Chamber pop piano-violin duo Gracie and Rachel were also there. They’re lovely. I was fortunate to have seem them a few times lately opening for both Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco.
Poet, essayist and neo-troubador animist Sophie Strand graced us with her presence and read a stunning piece. She’s new to me. I love her!
Svitlana Zavialova is a Ukrainian martial artist, painter and performance artist. Her performance resulted in a painting that fetched $750. She also wielded a sword when Amanda played “Drowning in the Sound” later in the evening. We’ll get to that. Trust me.
I didn’t get to catch more than a few moments of PowLo b-O.M.B. but he’s a super cool NYC subway foot drummer and guitar busker who was doing his thing outside the church.
Check out all of these people. They’re out there doing AMAZING THINGS.
Now about that Amanda performance…
After an enthusiastic introduction from Chris Wells, Amanda stood in the church’s pulpit and sang a song a cappella. But not just ANY SONG. She sang Tracy Chapman’s “Behind the Wall.” Raise your hand if you still have your original vinyl copy of Chapman’s absolutely brilliant debut album , home to “Fast Car,” Baby Can I Hold You” and the bone-chilling account of domestic violence that is “Behind the Wall.”
Turns out Chapman and Palmer both put in countless hours in different decades busking at the same exact spot in Harvard Square. BECAUSE OF COURSE THEY DID.
Hearing Amanda sing a song like “Behind the Wall” in a CHURCH was, well shit, it was a near religious experience.
And she was just getting started…
Still in the pulpit, Amanda picked up her ukulele to play a song near and dear to many hearts. From 2011’s “Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under” we heard “In My Mind.” Right from the start the words resonate.
“In my mind, in a future five years from now/I’m a hundred and twenty pounds/And I never get hungover, because I will be the picture of discipline/Never minding what state I’m in/And I will be someone I admire.”
When it came time for the “Fuck Yes” line from the song, she let us handle it and we damn well did.
Amanda’s 2019 album “There Will Be No Intermission” kills me in a way that few albums do. Every goddamn second of every track, including the musical interludes.
One of those songs that hits particularly hard is “The Thing About Things.” Amanda sings about loaning things out and not getting them back which then moves into singing about a complicated grandfather relationship and a stolen ring that gets lost -and then found -in a bar. The anguish is palpable and I could hear tears in Amanda’s voice during the lines “He wasn’t the type to give tokens of affection so I stole the ring when he died/And then twenty years on when I lost it in a bar, I thought that’s fine, I don’t want it him my life.” It was like when someone’s speaking at a funeral trying to hold it together and then realizing, fuck this, I don’t need to. Nor should I.
Amanda moved to the grand piano and played what she referred to as a “church song.”
It was “Jump (For Jeremy Geidt)” with the lines “We are miserable sinners/filthy fuckers.” This was of course glorious and she segued directly into one of my (many) favorite songs. From 2008’s “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” Amanda played “Ampersand” and here’s where I take a moment to shine a big, bright spotlight on something I don’t think gets talked about nearly enough: Amanda’s piano playing. It’s tremendous. I feel so strongly about this that I’m entirely ready for her to pull an Annie Lennox and release an instrumental album. (Lennox did this in 2019 with the magnificent 4-song piano EP “Ledidoptera.”)
But back to “Ampersand.” This is a truly classic Palmer song.
“And I may be romantic
And I may risk my life for it
But I ain’t gonna die for you
You know I ain’t no Juliet”
Am I really going to talk about every song Amanda played at this show? YEP. Sure am. I can’t help it.
But before I launch into gushing about the next song, it’s worth mentioning that Amanda played this entire show with her father Jack, who had been visiting for the past several days, in the ICU unit of a local hospital. She shared this with us adding that because she had been spending so much time in the hospital, her rehearsal time for this show had been minimal and the songs might suffer for it.
And she proved it by playing the frantic, fraught with drama “Runs in the Family,” which requires a flurry of piano not for the faint of heart.
Then it was back to “There Will Be No Intermission” for “Voicemail for Jill,” a song about abortion.
Before playing it, Amanda said this: “I wanted to play this song for really sad, obvious reasons. But I also was thinking backstage about what I wanted to say about the song. The tour that took me to New Zealand which is why I wound up away from America for over two years by accident was fundamentally a show about abortion rights. A lot of people did not really care for my show, including people close to me who didn’t understand why I had to get up on stage and talk about this stuff because it should be personal.” Everything feels terrible right now. But also I am seeing and finding people willing to fight the good fight in a way I never have before and this is what we have to fucking do.”
Damn right we do.
Amanda played “Voicemail for Jill” and the earth stood still for several minutes. And the piano was extra lovely on this one and brought tears to my eyes.
Leave it to Amanda to know the EXACT RIGHT SONG to play next. This woman knows how to read a room which is why “Coin Operated Boy” was the only song that could have come next.
From the 2004 self-titled Dresden Dolls album, “Coin Operated Boy” is pure delight. Yeah fine, Billy Joel’s piano sounds like a carnival, but Amanda’s sounds like a punk cabaret one. And while I’m thinking about it, hey Amanda, hey Brian, time to start thinking about a 20th anniversary re-issue of the album as it’s coming up fairly soon. Don’t ask me where the fucking time goes but here we are…
Amanda told us about recently seeing her longtime friend Regina Spektor perform at Carnegie Hall. Then she covered “Ode to Divorce,” the first track from Spektor’s EPIC 2004 album “Soviet Kitsch.” On Feb. 6, 2005 I saw Regina OPEN for Dresden Dolls in Portland, Maine. The Dolls’ set was professionally filmed and you can watch it here.
Amanda’s version of “Ode to Divorce” was sublime. Jesus.
It was time for us to experience Svitlana again. This time,wielding a huge sword and dancing/moving while Amanda played “Drowning in the Sound,” yet another jewel from “Intermission.” What’s more, Gracie and Rachel positioned themselves on opposite sides of the balcony to sing backing vocals during the song. I mean what in the actual fuck? It was transcendent.
Svitlana’s jerky, twitchy movements behind Amanda during the beginning of the song was stunning. Then she picked up that motherfucking sword and swirled around the stage and into the center aisle.
The piano came crashing down while Amanda sang and Svitlana wielded the sword like she was going into battle against dark forces that are both sinister and desperate for love.
The culmination was when Amanda’s arm stretched across one side of the piano and Svetlana’s the other as they reached for connection as Amanda sang the line “I’m watching everyone I love” over and over, holding the last note for several seconds as their hands reached for one other but never touched. It was a moment I won’t soon forget.
The show could have ended then and it would have been enough.
But it didn’t end.
Amanda wasn’t nearly done with us and in fact played a new song for us, an homage to her adopted home of New Zealand. She explained that she wrote very little during her time there and the one she played for us was written right before she left. “I gave myself a job. I needed to write a good love letter to this country that has taken care of me for two years.”
Jamie McFale is a fifth generation Kiwi that Amanda befriended during her time there and from whom she learned so much. She also talked about the loneliness she felt there. All of this and a ton more went into the song which mentions Jamie by name and captures pieces of conversations they had and the deeply personal things he shared with her. I hope she ends up recording and releasing it. It speaks to the complicated history of both the U.S. and New Zealand while also celebrating her love for the island country which kept she and her son Ash safe.
Poet Sophie Strand was introduced. Gracie sat next to Amanda at the piano and the two played together while Rachel played violin and Sophie read the piece “I Will Not Be Purified.” Holy shit. Now I want to ready everything she’s ever written. Again I say: Holy shit.
Now comes the part where I cried really hard.
The last song of “There Will Be No Intermission” is called “Death Thing.” I’ve always struggled with this song but not for the reasons you think. It’s not because I don’t like it. Quite the opposite is true. I just can’t casually listen to it while doing random stuff like the dishes or running errands in the car. “Death Thing” is a song that needs to be saved for when I can be quiet and feel safe.
And the song took on new meaning for me on May 29 of this year. This is the day my mother Louise died. Five weeks after a brain tumor diagnosis. I had been there for all of it. Driving the 90 minutes (it could have been 900 and it wouldn’t have mattered) back and forth to the hospital and then the wonderful spot where she spent about the last ten days of her life. I was there when she started to slip away, first by ending talking, then eating and drinking. I was there on the last day when I walked into her room and knew from the shift in her breathing that this was it.
I am, as you can imagine, still processing all of this. I let myself feel the pain in measured doses. Although I’m starting to believe and trust in the fact that my grief will not swallow me whole, even as tears stream down my face as I write this and I think about how much I miss my mother.
Amanda dedicated the song to Sophie who she had spent time with at the hospital in the days leading up the show.
Three notes in I knew what song it was. I was seated in the balcony of that church snapping photos. I put my camera down and held onto the Celtic cross that belonged to my mother that I now wear every day.
I told myself to just be present. To go full on Beatles and just let it goddamn be for once.
My shoulders shook as I quietly sobbed. But a few minutes later, as the song ended with Amanda singing the Sanskrit mantra “Jai guru deva, om” (which most of us know from The Beatles’ “Across the Universe.”) it occurred to me that I was still there, grief and all.
The show continued with the song “I Love You So Much” which is on the album Amanda made with her dad Jack a few years ago. He was going to be a surprise guest at the show. At this moment I’m not sure on how Jack is going but I sure hope he’s OK or at the very least, not in pain. Gracie graciously stepped in and sang his part.
The evening ended with a cover of the song “Another World” by Antony and The Johnsons. It’s from the 2009 album “The Crying Light.” I know next to nothing about this band but sure am curious. Head here to get yourself started at least.
I don’t know the original but figured out what it was by some old school lyrics googling. I have since listened to it and am of course wondering where the song has been my whole life.
Here’s a chunk of the lyrics:
I need another world
A place where I can go
I’m gonna miss the sea
I’m gonna miss the snow
I’m gonna miss the bees
I miss the things that grow
I’m gonna miss the trees
A lot happened during Amanda’s performance of the quite frankly sacred song. She moved from the piano back to where it all began; the pulpit. Rachel was below playing violin, Gracie was at the piano. Amanda wore a crown of small red flowers.
Father Nathan Monk walked up one of the side aisles, holding a small statue of Jesus. Svitlana walked up the center one holding a globe over her head. Sophie Strand rang bells. The four of them stood on that pulpit, then Chris Wells joined them and covered the glove with cloth and embraced it, as is in mourning. The church grew dark and the last strand of violin was heard. It was breathtaking. Truly breathtaking.
I’ve missed you terribly, Amanda.