Singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer played an intimate show at Montreal’s Monument-National this weekend.
Walking out with a glass of red wine already in hand (“I usually don’t start drinking until the second act”), Palmer sat casually at the edge of the stage to strum “In My Mind” on the ukulele.
The anti-self-improvement anthem was instantly relatable, its wry lyrics eliciting good-natured chuckles from the crowd. Palmer admitted to being embarrassed of the song when she first wrote it, having premiered it at a yoga retreat “surrounded by hippie people who didn’t know anything about music.”
“Now, I think it’s a pretty good song.”
Running well over three hours, the show was half concert and half public speaking gig. The setlist was dominated by her latest record There Will Be No Intermission, alongside a few eclectic covers, one tune from her punk-cabaret band The Dresden Dolls, and a couple tracks from her solo debut Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Each song was bookended by a story, with Palmer opening up about her recent miscarriage and previous abortions, as well as the death of her best friend from cancer and the joys and struggles of motherhood.
It was heavy subject matter for sure (from my seat in the balcony, I could hear several people weeping throughout the entire first act). Thankfully, Palmer is a gifted storyteller – there’s a reason her TED Talk has over five million views on Youtube. She was never less then riveting, and knew when to deploy dark humour to lighten the mood. (She also promised to play the intro to “Coin-Operated Boy” as a palette cleanser if anyone got too sad).
Taking a seat at the piano, Palmer reminisced about the many evenings spent working out her teenage angst on the family piano – and about her parents, who complained about the noise but patiently paid to replace every string she broke pounding on the keys. “I think, somehow, she knew it would be cheaper than therapy,” Palmer said of her mother.
She re-enacted those sessions with the staccato bursts of “Runs in the Family,” a piano-punk breakdown on inheritance and intergenerational trauma which had Palmer barely stopping to breathe, blurting out motormouthed lyrics like: “My friend’s depressed, she’s a wreck, she’s a mess / They’ve done all sorts of tests and they guess it has something to do with her / grandmother’s grandfather’s grandmother / civil war soldiers who badly infected her.”
Next up was another ukulele anthem, There Will Be No Intermission’s “The Thing About Things,” a wry reflection on things lost, things left behind, and things left unsaid. “The thing about things is they can start meaning things nobody actually said,” Palmer sang, in between confessions of claiming (and then losing, and then finding again) a ring belonging to her “distant and bitter” grandfather.
Palmer’s delivery reflected the unvarnished nature of her music. Her voice was often ragged, the piano occasionally discordant, and some of her most painfully raw lyrics were accompanied by the mellow strings of a ukulele.
One of the most moving songs of the night was “Bigger on the Inside,” an eight-minute ukulele ballad which had Palmer sitting by her friend’s hospital bed, wading through online attacks and agonizing over her response to a sexual abuse victim who’d written her for advice. That song, she told the crowd, was written during a difficult time in her life, where she found herself at the intersection of private tragedy and public controversy.
Palmer was eloquent in addressing the various times she’s come under fire from friends and foes alike. She recalled brushing off criticisms over her use of crowdfunding and volunteer musicians for her 2012 Theatre is Evil album and its accompanying tour; those attacks didn’t cut deep, she explained, because they came from outsiders who didn’t understand the collaborative relationship she’d cultivated with her fans.
Worse, she said, were the moments when her own allies turned on her – first, over her single “Oasis,” a Beach Boys-esque pop song about sexual assault, and later for a provocative poem written in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. The controversies took a personal toll on Palmer (particularly the poem, which left her persona non grata in her hometown), but she remained unrepentant about both. She maintains that her job as an artist is to find humour and empathy in the most extreme of circumstances.
The Montreal show had no shortage of Palmer’s trademark gallows humour. She clearly delighted in the shocking lyrics of “Oasis,” which she played as an aside amid a lengthier discussion about her quest to write “a good abortion song.”
More surprising were her re-interpretations Disney songs as tormented reflections on the nature of motherhood. In Palmer’s demented hands, “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid was reborn as a tongue-in-cheek lament about her turmoil over whether or not to have kids. Later, the song from Frozen soundtracked the loss of a pregnancy (the circumstances of Palmer’s miscarriage, which occurred on a frigid night at a mountain retreat in the middle of nowhere, actually corresponded pretty well to the lyrics of “Let It Go.”)
There’s a certain intertextuality to Amanda Palmer songs. Outside of her notoriously confessional music, Palmer is known for being vulnerable with her fans through intimate blogs and frank social media posts, not to mention her 2014 autobiography. When she sings about visiting her baby’s godfather or sitting by her mentor’s deathbed, you know exactly who she’s singing about and why they matter to her.
A highlight of the night was “Machete,” a gorgeous and raw tribute to her friend Anthony, written on the eve of his funeral. Setting dreamlike lyrics over jackhammer piano chords, the song has Palmer reconciling the contradictions within her mentor, a therapist who espoused “radical compassion” but was also an avid collector of weapons: “I have never liked the box of knives / you said was a paradox because you’re kind / but withstood a childhood that robbed you blind / of love.”
Closing out the first half of the show was Palmer’s epic-length parenthood anthem “A Mother’s Confession,” which had her leading the crowd on a sing-along to the relieved chorus of “At least the baby didn’t die.”
After a brief intermission, Palmer came back with “Drowning in the Sound,” an emotionally-wrenching protest song, followed by the empathy plea “Voicemail for Jill.” She also treated the Montreal crowd to a cover of “Everybody Knows” by the late Canadian songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen. (Palmer had been singing Cohen’s praises throughout the night, after noticing that the venue’s piano was adorned with his signature).
She closed with a Dresden Dolls throwback, the bawdy cabaret tune “Coin-Operated Boy,” before coming back for an encore of “The Ride.”
That song, inspired by a Bill Hicks routine and a crowdsourced discussion about fear, is a carnivalesque meditation on the nature of life and death. (It messes with my head every time I hear it, and last night was no exception – especially with the sparse strings of lights that adorned the stage working with the piano to subtly mimic a whirling carousel).
It was an unsettling note to end on, but also quintessentially Amanda Palmer: intimate yet grandiose, confronting tragedy with hope and humour.
Line-up: Amanda Palmer
Venue: Monument-National, Montreal
Date: Saturday, March 23/2019