It’s October and the streets of the East end of London are dark and wet. Limehouse looks strange in the early hours of the evening. The drizzle leaves everything slick, including the roads, buildings and hustle of people hurrying about their business. Everything is uniformly sinister. A gentleman is stood on a street corner smoking a cigarette after his evening meal, his formal dress of white shirt, black trousers, tie and waistcoat lends him an air of nobility. His pale face smiles slightly and he nods as we walk past him.
“Enjoy the show.”
You’d be forgiven if I was describing a scene from the graphic novel “From Hell”, especially if I tell you that it’s Halloween and we’re only a few miles from where Jack the Ripper’s grisly murders took place. But instead we’re here for something else. We’re here to witness the eighteenth anniversary of The Dresden Dolls, tonight being celebrated in The Troxy, a wonderfully ornate theatre carved from an Art Deco styling that takes your breath away as soon as you stand opposite it, nevermind when you’re actually stood in it’s majestic foyer.
The Dresden Dolls could not have picked a finer home for tonight’s celebration of their cabaret and Punk infused performance. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, the band is the brain child of Amanda Palmer (keys and vocals) and Brian Viglione (drums, percussion, guitar and vocals) mixing early Punk, Gothic grandeur and Brechtian theatre and injecting it with an infusion of cabaret. They have only two real studio albums from the early 2000’s to their name (as well as a couple of collections) but have managed to carve themselves a place in the history of Alternative music. It’s no surprise to know that they’ve kept a rabid fan base, no doubt helped by the rise of Amanda Palmer and her strong relationship with her audience. What was surprising though was the announcement on her UK solo tour earlier this year for of a pair of Halloween shows here in London. Tickets were snapped up really quickly in anticipation of something wonderful and wild.
My girlfriend and I take our seats at a table in the theatre’s circle that we’ll be sharing with another couple. These run along the width of the balcony, with regular raked seating behind us. The floor is already filled with bodies, waiting on tonight’s main fare, some in fancy dress, some not. But before all this can start we have tonight’s compare/support/amuse-bouche Andrew O’Neill. Andrew is an old friend of Amanda’s, an author of “A History Of Heavy Metal”, vocalist and guitarist in the steampunk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing (another tie to Mr J. T. Ripper) and also a pretty damn funny comedian. I saw him supporting Amanda on her previously mentioned solo tour and found him hilarious. Tonight finds him in similar form, firing off scattergun lines, trying to perform “Under Pressure” as well as guiding us through concepts like Grizzly Bear Photographic Development Lab (I’m not going to explain it, just go and see him when he’s next anywhere near you). He’s the perfect host for the evening, looking glamorous in the short black dress he’s wearing tonight (just as disclosure, this is not for Halloween, Andrew is transsexual. He’s also got a liking for magic too, which is incorporated into his act), the sort of person you’d love to sit and have a good chat with (so Andrew, if you’re reading this, give me a shout when you next get to Newcastle. First drink is on me) and it’s pretty clear that the audience are enjoying his performance too. After a fleeting thirty minutes Andrew announces that it’s time for the Dresden Dolls themselves.
The stage is pretty bare as Amanda and Brian enter. There are two small raised platforms, one with Amanda’s keyboard on it, the other with Brian’s drum kit and acoustic guitar on it. The pair briefly bask in the cheers, bow and hug each other before settling behind their chosen instruments. The piano starts, Amanda carefully plucking the opening notes of 'Good Day' from the keyboard as Brian, sat at his drum kit, plays the guitar along to it. After a few moments, the guitar is put aside and drum sticks picked up as he plays his chosen instrument.
The audience are clamouring for their next Dresden Doll fix as the band finish that song and start with the theatrical 'Miss Me', and is probably a good place for me to explain a few things about the band and performance itself.
The Dolls are relatively unique in a way. They appropriate a sense of grandeur not only cabaret but from several other sources of theatrical performance. They wear costumes more appropriate to circus or ballet performers; Amanda in striped leggings and black vest, and Brian in long shorts, bowler hat and bare chested under his ornate trail coat. The way they approach their playing too is very thought out. Amanda lunges and stabs away at her keyboard, as if she's pulling the song from it's electrical innards. And Brian? He's a revelation and, quite possibly, the duo's secret weapon. Whereas Ms Palmer has become a focal point in her own right over the years, the drummer is captivating everyone.
Viglione makes a performance out of drumming. Rather than just build the beat for the song to work around, he accentuates everything he plays with a real sense of flamboyance. His moment is fluid, apart from 'Coin Operated Boy' where he adopts the persona of the animatronic creature of the song's title while still drumming, including an odd stuck record style beat at one point. He's immediately become one of my favourite live drummers.
The set draws from several different points from the band's career as well as throwing in the odd surprise. For every 'Mrs O' there's a 'Small Hands, Small Heart' (one of Amanda's Patreon funded songs). 'Pirate Jenny' sees Brian take to the front of the stage with his acoustic guitar as Palmer dashes through the audience to stand half way up a staircase to perform the Kurt Weill political standard, one leg thrown over the rail, toasting the audience with a bottle of beer. 'Delilah' sees Brian's wife (and bandmate) Olya Viglione share a vocal spotlight with Amanda.
We're even treated to a new material in 'Blaming The Victim', a song that could sit quite comfortably within catalogue. Hopefully this means we could see more music from the Dresden Dolls, we're at a point where we need band's like this.
A haunting 'Take Me To Church', originally by Hozier, takes the audience by surprise, but not as surprising as Rage Against the Machine's 'Killing In The Name' which sees a mosh pit forming for the duo's powerful arrangement of classic. 'Half Jack' sees Amanda and Brian attack their own material with the same amount of high energy, each musician attacking their instrument with passion that you so rarely see, before a soothing 'Boston' brings the main set to a close.
Andrew O'Neill comes back to the stage, talking about how much the Dresden Dolls and this gig in particular mean to him. He also talks about the healing power of music, how it can bring people together, people who've been separated from each other. Tonight, he tells us, the Dolls music has brought together something that nobody thought would ever happen..........OASIS!
'Fucking In The Bushes' blasts over the venue's PA as two familiar looking figures swagger and snarl their way on to the stage. But these aren't the speculated Manchurian brothers, rather their Dresden Dolls doppelgangers. Amanda "Liam" Palmer takes a seat behind the drums as Brian "Noel" Voglione picks a Union Jack guitar and the pair, aided by Andrew O'Neill on guitar and Ben Ellis on bass, play through a ragged but fun version of the Oasis classic 'Don't Look Back In Anger'. It's a loose take on it. Who needs perfection for a Halloween joke when everyone is having a good laugh at it, especially the musicians onstage. The song concluded, the Dolls partially get back of their Oasis get up and take their usual spots to hammer through 'Girl Anachronism', a song filled with energy and enthusiasm that fills the room.
People are starting to scramble for the exit as the Dolls decide to give us a final encore. They play 'Sing' from their album "Yes, Virginia". As they get part the way through they're joined along the front of the stage by friends, crew and guests, including Andrew O'Neill (again) and Amanda's husband the author Neil Gaiman. It's a fitting end to the gig, marking the end of something special.
And then it's over and we're spilling out into the foyer and the dark wet streets again. A curious sight of part circus, part freakshow, part stunned audience. All of us happy to have been here, to have been part of this. Some gigs are just gigs, some transcend the experience.
Long live The Dresden Dolls!
The Dresden Dolls - https://www.facebook.com/dresdendolls/
Andrew O'Neill - https://www.facebook.com/andrewoneillcomedy/
Review - Scott Hamilton