Sunday, 13 September 2009
Amanda Palmer at Union Chapel
We took position opposite the chapel, in the library, where there were already others clothed as if not from the local area. The darkly clad man with the triangular hat and the large and slightly disturbing sock puppet were the first we noticed, followed by another puppet with black buttons for eyes. We were entering a zone where Brechtian punk cabaret seemed to be intersecting with a few characters who would be at home in Coraline or Struwwelpeter.
A Guinness and some fancy Belgian beers later and we'd spotted the pedal operated piano navigating the Islington traffic system. Eventually after the piano's return and hearing applause from an impromptu song from Amanda outside the chapel, we decided it was time for us cross the road from the pub to the event.
Two lines, so we joined the shorter one, soon to be advised by one of those very puppets that we needed to change to the longer queue, which now snaked out of the building, along the road, down some steps and finished somewhere in the gyratory system.
We good-naturedly walked the smiling faces, many people clearly dressed for the occasion and as we did so, the pianist started to have trouble with the piano which by now was belching orange flames from its interior, along with clouds of black smoke. Undeterred, he played on, accompanied by a vocalist similarly unperturbed by the change of circumstance.
Inside the chapel, we realised that those ahead of us had now filled most of the seats. We remembered the side staircase and found our way to the gallery. Ideal for a perfect view.
First was Essex-based Polly Scattergood, shimmering in silver, accessorised with pink, playing quirky songs of pills and vulnerability accompanied by a small band with some rather loud drums. We applauded in all the right places as Polly delivered around five songs from her debut album. The audience was warm, but as she mentioned the name of the act to follow there was a noticeable burst of added appreciation.
Before the main act, the chapel's organ was played by a shadowy maestro who had to sit behind the stage. A delightful interlude.
And so onto Amanda. Palmer. Neil Gaiman had already taken a spot near the front and Beth Hommel was doing things with papers and water on the stage.
Amanda appeared, moved to the front and sang 'The wind that shakes the barley', unaccompanied.
Total silence from the audience until the end of the song and then a reverberation to lift the roof from the church. We could sense we were in for a great show.
Sure enough, the KurtWeil keys were then caressed and Amanda' poise became at one with the instrument which she could coax or attack as the song and mood demanded.
A blend of well-known songs from her recent excellent album and an equal mix of other choices, from other works and from friends with whom she collaborates. "Oasis" was introduced with a comment about us all going to Hell and although "Leeds United" was omitted, I'm including a video link to it anyway.
The set ran smoothly, interspersed with chatter, questions, a picture auction and a chance for Polly Scattergood to perform an unusual rendition of Puff the Magic Dragon with Amanda on keys.
There's a magic to the venue and even Amanda admitted that she'd decided she had better think out a 'proper set' for the performance, which came across as polished but with a strong rapport engaging the audience from the very start.
There was an endearing moment whilst she remembered the chords for a song someone requested. At another time, she invited her partner Neil Gaiman onstage and he sang a short 'hymn' which Amanda accompanied on piano. It certainly didn't fall flat on its face either.
Amanda ran the timing right to the 10:30 curfew wire, but then still managed to finish with another unaccompanied and wrenching version of 'the song nobody else can cover': Tori Amos's 'Me and a gun', from which I sense more than a few tears were shed. Then to boost it back up for the final number with stabbing keys and a suitably rousing finale.
After the houselights, we headed back to the bar for a further Red Stripe and a chance to chatter about the concert. Much later we left, and as we walked out, there was still a line of people snaking through the chapel towards the seat where Amanda sat signing and chatting, accompanied by Neil.
Amanda Palmer makes her own unique path through the world and music and it is great when this spirit alights even momentarily to allow us to share in the experience. I predict scaffolding and roof repairs to the chapel following the level of applause.
Come back soon.