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Sick Among The Pure - July 2005

Life Size Marionettes and Toy Pianos:
The Dresden Dolls in San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York

by Angie Harris

This article should start out with a toy piano, blue lights and an empty stage.  Instead I’m running for a cab.  Shirt sleeves and pink corset ribbons aren’t sticking out the side of my luggage, makeup isn’t falling out of unzipped pouches, but I packed so hastily it feels like it should be.  Right now I’m rushing to catch Delta filght 1898 direct to JFK.  New York marks the end of three cities and four shows.  Back at The Warfield in San Francisco, two and half weeks ago, this was all about NIN and With Teeth.  I’d never heard of the Dresden Dolls.  Now I’m out the door, tape recorder in hand, bags in tow just in case the interview with Amanda Palmer comes through.

“Who’s the opening band again?” my friend D asks me.

This is still back in San Fran, back up in the cozy balcony seating at The Warfield.  I have to look down at the tickets to tell him.

“Dresden?  Great.  They’ll probably scream in German for sixty straight minutes,” D says.

“Don’t worry,” I say.  “Opening bands never play for more than forty five minutes.”  I give D my best smart-ass smile and look over the balcony to watch the life size ballerina marionette and her puppeteer spinning their way through the audience.  Other similarly attired folk were doing various “look at me” kinds of things and I said to D, “Evidently they really go all out in San Francisco.”  I will later discover that these folks have come as part of the Dresden Dolls Brigade.  He grumbled in response and my eyes drifted over to the stage, which is when I noticed there was nothing set up other than a piano and a drum set.  “They have more than this to they’re band, don’t they?  I mean, they’re not seriously going to go on with just this?” 

Cue the toy piano.

The Dresden Dolls enter hand in hand, raise their arms and take a bow to a burst of applause from the hundreds of in-the-know fans in the audience.  They take their respective places – Amanda Palmer at her keyboard and Brian Viglione at the drums.  The programmed loop fades and the two start into the haunting melody of their opening song, “Good Day.”  Just them, drums, a keyboard, and a microphone.  I’d expect
his article should start out with a toy piano, blue lights and an empty stage.  Instead I’m running for a cab.  Shirt sleeves and pink corset ribbons aren’t sticking out the side of my luggage, makeup isn’t falling out of unzipped pouches, but I packed so hastily it feels like it should be.  Right now I’m rushing to catch

skepticism to such a minimalist approach to music, especially while waiting for Trent Reznor to take the stage.  But Amanda has started singing, and D is done with his quips.  Indeed, most of the skepticism in the audience is quelled by the time Amanda gets through the first line to “I’m on fire!”  Her deep, throaty voice fills the ballroom and there is no question that no other bells or whistles are required.  Both of The Dolls were on fire that night and the fire spread throughout the crowd as they played their set.

The Warfield was my favourite of the three venues I saw them at, although each venue had something great about it.  The Warfield was perfect for sound, and for those of us too old and arthritic from our early days in the pits to do anything other than take a seat for the show, it had assigned comfy seats.  The Joint in Las Vegas is rather plain looking, standing room only, and the drinks are seriously overpriced.  But the sound is excellent and it has big screens on either side of the stage. Being able to get an up close picture of Amanda’s expressions as she sang was worth standing and fighting for my space.  Every once in a while the cameras would pan over to Brian as well, which was great since he seems to get overlooked.  His passion, talent, and performance equals Amanda’s; then again, he’s not wearing stockings.  The Hammerstein Ballroom in New York is gorgeous.  The Hammerstein is a pre-war ballroom that holds only 2,500 people, so there isn’t a bad seat in the house, although the seats are cramped and it’s first come first served.  Most importantly, the sound is fantastic.

After the SF and Vegas shows, I come to New York excited to be in The City again and saddened at the thought that this would be my last Dresden Dolls/Nine Inch Nails show.  But my husband joins me and excitement takes over, as this is the first time he will see either band perform live and I can’t wait to hear what he thinks.  Having him there keeps the memory of the first San Francisco show fresh in my mind, and while I know the set quite well by now, I can remember what it is like to see them with new eyes.

Cue toy piano.

This time the Dolls bring out a guest violinist, Miss Meredith, to join them for “Miss Me” which brings a “Devil Went Down to Georgia” sound to the song.  The audience sings along to “Coin Operated Boy,” one of their campier cabaret tunes, but as with most of their songs that seem silly, if you take the time to think about the lyrics or get past the metaphor, there are some fundamental truths about the human condition waiting to be grasped.  As it turns out, this particular song, perhaps considered their most silly, illustrates the depths of loneliness we can sink to and how simple the things we want out of a relationship really are – “Telling me he loves me / That he’s thinking of me / Straight and to the point / That is why I want a / Coin-operated boy”.

In the middle of the set, the duo slams out a cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” that captures the enthusiasm of even the most impatient of audience members and had us all singing or screaming along, jumping, banging, and thrashing.  But their other cover, an impassioned version of Jacque Brel’s “Amsterdam”, threatens to lose the hard-earned enthusiasm, though this only happens at the New York show for some reason, in spite of the fact that it gives Amanda a chance to step away from the piano and writhe and stomp around in her vixen-like manner in her standard performance attire – short black dress (super-hero A in the center), striped stockings and garters – without the piano between her and the crowd, which must have made many fans very happy.  Fortunately, the Dolls are not new to performing and are able to quickly regain the crowd’s interest by thanking Reznor and Nine Inch Nails for having them along for the ride and ending their set with a few of their high intensity, edgier songs like “Girl Anachronism”, “Gravity”, and “Half Jack”.

By the end of the set, the crowd is pumped up and even more ready to see Nine Inch Nails than they were when they came in, if that’s possible – exactly what an opening band is supposed to do, and the Dresden Dolls pulled it off in the four shows and three cities I saw them in.  This alone is a testament to power of their live show.  They are not grabbing the attention of just any crowd.  They are grabbing the attention of crowds who have been waiting for five years to see Nine Inch Nails on the stage – no small feat, indeed.  

After the show I stand in the long line of fans – some new, some old – to get my Dresden Dolls CD cover autographed.  This is something I rarely do, but given that I’m still hoping that there is some chance of getting an interview with them, I want to put a face with the magazine – make it more personal.  So I give Brian my CD and I feel like a 12 years-old.  His makeup has been washed off and he is beautiful.  We talk for a minute about how well the show went and I compliment him on his drum skills – strictly legit, this guy is an animal on the drums.  He seems happy and relaxed.  He still takes the time to sign most of his name.  We talk about the possibility of an interview, which grabs Amanda’s attention.  “Which magazine?”  She asks.  “SickAmongthePure”, I reply.  She repeats the name.  “Okay, great.  Well see what we can do,” she says, as she takes my CD and scribbles something that looks something like a heart inside several circles…not entirely unlike my own signature.  “Thanks,” I say and as I go to move so that other people can have their turn, Brian says, “We’ll see you around then,” and smiles.  All I can do at that point is smile back, nod and continue to be pushed out of line. 

We take a cab back to the hotel and check my e-mail to see whether there is any word on the interview.  Nothing yet.  But we’re in New York for another day, so it’s still possible. And for now at least, everything is perfect. 

In order to have the full Dresden Dolls experience, you have to see them live.  Their album does stand alone as a great bit of music, but it leaves a large chunk of the cabaret element out of the self-described Punk cabaret band’s mix.  The Dresden Dolls are not just musicians.  They are performance artists who are best appreciated live.