Back in 2006 The Dresden Dolls (Amanda Palmer, piano and vocals, and Brian Viglione, drums, guitar, back vocals) appeared at The Roundhouse in Camden, London for a show that arguably, marked the height of their punk cabaret adventure.
Now, 13 years later, after sporadic shows in the US over the last few years they returned to England’s capital for a two night residency over Halloween at the impressively grand Troxy in the East End.
Before the live performance began a selection of songs, as ever, played through the PA. More than usual these seemed to have been selected to match the mood of the night with punk, jazz, new wave and more in the mix, highlights coming in the form of X-Ray Spex’ Oh Bondage Up Yours! and the film version of the Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Rather than another band the live portion of the evening began with comedian Andrew O’Neill.
I think I’m safe to say he’s probably the nations favourite surrealist vegan transvestite black metal comedian and, from the pit at least, it was clear everyone was very much on the same wavelength with him leading him to comment that a few of his jokes usually get rather different reactions in the usual comedy clubs.
Over the course of around half an hour he warmed the crowd up nicely and threw in some good fun audience participation too to set the stage in surprisingly suitable manner for the main event to come.
A comedian as warm up may sound like an odd choice but given the unique style of The Dresden Dolls music I can’t think of a band that would fit and it also made this feel like something more than ‘just another gig’ before it even began.
Then, to a rapturous greeting, The Dresden Dolls made their way onto the stage, greeting the audience before making their way to their individual risers and proceeding to deliver two and half hours of near non-stop, righteous, punk cabaret.
Things began with a trio of their most popular songs, Girl Anachronism, Good Day and Backstabber, that set the tone for the night as the audience sang along and, despite both being situated behind their respective instruments, the barrier between band and audience entirely dissolved in the way of the best punk rock shows.
Considering they play two of the most traditionally static instruments both Palmer and Viglione were in non-stop motion playing off each other and the audience and Brian in particular acting like a kind of physical counterpoint to Amanda’s words.
For a band who have only been together at best part-time for a number of years the performance was near flawless, and even the odd momentary glitch was brilliantly covered.
As the set went on, it was clear they were more than confident enough to play around with the songs. In some cases this meant extended instrumental passages and really playing off one another for timings and cues and, in the case of Mandy Goes To Med School, throwing in a drum solo that lifted the room rather than boring them, as often happens with drum solos.
As has become tradition they were joined by another vocalist for Delilah, in this case Olya Scarlet Viglione, wife and bandmate of Brian in their own rock act Scarlet Sails, which elevated that song to huge levels.
While The Dresden Dolls music has always been deeply personal dealing with the ups and downs of Amanda’s life in sometimes almost uncomfortable detail, here they took some of those songs and made them explicitly political, referencing several ongoing issues both in their home country and on this side of the Atlantic.
So Sex Changes, Mrs O, and others gained a new power while new song (of which there were two in the set along with talk of a potential new album) Small Hands, Small Heart, dealt directly with Trump and his followers.
This political streak was topped off with a pair of covers, one of Take Me To Church by Hozier dealing with the recent abortion vote in Ireland. Then, following Amanda imploring voters in the US to use their vote next week, Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name raising the roof almost literally and confounding my initial expectation by sounding amazing and still heavy as you’d want, when rearranged for drums and piano.
Following Killing In The Name with a blistering rendition of Half Jack ended the set on a high and caused one of the biggest, and it felt to me, most genuine, calls for an encore I’ve heard, so it wasn’t long before the band were back on stage.
Well Brian was on stage, acoustic guitar in hand, Amanda, in typical fashion for a performer known for ‘ninja gigs’ headed out into the crowd and onto the landing of the stage right stair case up to the balcony from which she delivered Jacque Brell’s Amsterdam before returning to the stage for Truce.
Throughout the set the band’s performance, including tremendous physical, almost mime like work, from Brian (done whilst still delivering an astonishingly dynamic and varied drumming performance), was bolstered by one of the best light shows I can remember seeing for a band.
It wasn’t that elaborate, we aren’t talking lasers or flying lighting rigs like you might get with Metallica, but through relatively simple but well conceived colour and movement it backed up the music superbly, reaching something of a peak with alternating white and red during Half Jack.
This also highlighted something that was a recurring theme throughout the performance, in that Amanda and Brian often feel like the devil and angel on your shoulder as seen in vintage cartoons, but it’s never quite clear which is which, or in fact, if the angel is really all that angelic.
After yet more calls from the audience the Dolls were back once again to close the show on a truly epic rendition of Sing culminating with a choir of fans/friends joining them on stage and the whole of Troxy joining in solidifying the inclusive, community feel of the whole event.
During the set Amanda may have admitted that the following night would feature a slightly different set and more guests, so this was something of warm up for that.
This might explain the absence of a couple of key tracks, including Shores of California, but if they hadn’t said it I would never really have thought it, but it did leave me wanting to come back and for this to continue tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow)… but even so this now sits up there (along with Against Me! at the Electric Ballroom in 2016 and Rancid at Brixton in 2006) with the best shows I’ve attended.
Oh, and happy 18th birthday to The Dresden Dolls!