AMANDA & JACK PALMER, KOKO, FRIDAY NIGHT
I thought it a cute present for daughter’s birthday to take her to see a dad and his daughter play some odd cover songs. Of course, the fact that we’d never heard a note of Amanda Palmer’s music was neither here or there – the concept was good. And, as it turned out, inspired. She came on stage (at the unfeasibly early start time of 7.30) to an audience made up of Steampunks, ex-Goths, Chaps, ex-Chaps, ex-self-harmers – just your basic London list of niche tribes of all stripes. She picked up a ukelele and started a song:
“In my mind
In a future five years from now
I’m one hundred and twenty pounds
And I never get hung over
Because I will be the picture of discipline
Never minding what state I’m in
And I will be someone I admire
And it’s funny how I imagined
That I would be that person now
But it does not seem to have happened…”
So, first song in, we have a witty start. She’s had a baby since last touring and this sets the gig up nicely. As she puts down the uke, she wonders about her reaction to having a baby – “I’d play nice folk songs, and then I’d would just start writing nice songs about nice things, all major key songs about my children, all “life is good”… but I’d want to kill myself. What I actually just realised is, by making this record with my dad…” she trails off to hoots of laughter from the audience. “And lo and behold, we covered a bunch of nice folk songs… so maybe I’m exorcising the thing like some satanic demon.”
There’s something sort of old school about her though, so I’m thinking… Nellie McKay meets Liza Minnelli? For the second song she moves to the piano, and a more typical number – “Machete” – ensues. At which point my reference changes. Flailing arms at the piano, smashing the keys hard, Palmer booms out a song that seems to deal in some major angst. And I’m thinking… Sophie Tucker meets Patti Smith? A baby’s cry breaks the mood and she calls a halt midway. “I actually don’t know what to do, cause when I hear the baby I’m supposed to get up and walk offstage. It’s too distracting!” She eventually finds her way back into the song. “I don’t much like this song, says daughter, “but I really like her…”
And it’s hard not to warm to her, especially when the bizarre parade of special guests starts parading. First up is Neil Gaiman and (their) son. He hands the baby off to Amanda at the piano and reads a sleeve-note entitled “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”, with spookily perfect keyboard interjections by baby. It’s hard to convey the amusement value that sometimes exists in live performances, but I’m up for anything that breaks the mould of earnest “Here’s a song from the new album” gigs. I still fondly remember an Aimee Mann and Michael Penn gig where their friend, comedian Patton Oswalt, set up each song – often witheringly, scathingly – after being their support act.
Proud dad is followed by a current collaborater, Edward Ka-Spel, who daughter describes, accurately and hilariously, in terms not fit to print. He is barefoot, has a cape, some strange optics on his nose, and sings slightly creepy poetry. I’m thinking… Edward Gorey meets Nico? At this point, dad Jack is introduced, and does a solid if slightly stolid version of Leonard Cohen’s “You Got Me Singing”. He sings, in Johnny Cash’s register, an affecting plain song, very much Greenwich Village folkie pre-Dylan’s arrival. Not like the fruity actor-ness of a Theodore Bickel or Sebastian Cabot, more like a non-Italian version of Dominic Chianese (who played Uncle Junior in The Sopranos).
By the time we’ve reached “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” and “The Skye Boat Song”, we’re feeling caught up in a Mighty Boosh version of Playschool, especially as the latter is introduced by another poet, a tall thin man dressed in high heels. At this point, daughter needed more wine. Amanda and Dad work their way through Phil Ochs’ “In the Heat of the Summer” – a piece of protest doggerel that hadn’t aged well, before attempting Sinead O’Connor, More Len, Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World” (her sister comes on to sing on this) and John Grant’s slightly clunky cry for tolerance and difference, “Glacier”.
Amanda sometimes seemed a little, well, needy. But I get it, this genre is all about sharing/bonding/fandom/belonging etc – you can see she’s been a solid influence on Lady Gaga. As she talks to her patrones in the audience, super-fans who are currently crowdfunding her career, I’m now thinking… PT Barnum crossed with Lene Lovich?
Amanda and Dad end with Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” featuring a bravura piano arrangement before encoring with a couple of Dresden Dolls songs (I have no idea who the Dresden Dolls are, but Palmer was a part of them). Thus ends a night of variety and as we head down the warren of stairs to the cool outside air, I’m no closer to understanding how to describe AP & Pa. I have one last thought… Ethel Merman meets Tori Amos…