As one half of the Dresden Dolls, Amanda Palmer has served the groundbreaking, Brechtian punk-cabaret act as singer, songwriter, and pianist. Yet above all else, she shines as a storyteller, whether in collaboration with others or writing alone, evoking worlds through words with the clarity of Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Rasputina's Melora Creager. She tells her tales with truth and passion, equally adept at transporting us with an outpouring of her own heart, or writing in the voice of a character she's created.
This amazing gift, first revealed in her collaborations with Brian Viglione, the other half of the Dresden Dolls, keeps on giving in her current work, her debut solo album Who Killed Amanda Palmer? Produced by Ben Folds and recorded in Nashville, the album isn't a radical departure, musically, from what we've heard on Dresden Dolls releases. But don't expect the same-old when she plays Mr. Small's Theatre on Sat., Nov. 29.
"What I want, my blanket rule no matter what the project is, is that I always want to surprise the audience, create some unexpected element for them," Palmer says.
Palmer just spent a meager week enjoying the comforts of hearth and home after a grueling tour of the European continent in support of her solo album. Following her tiny retreat in native habitat, she's already embarked upon a tour of the United States. Palmer would be entirely justified in being tired, aloof or even cranky, but she's ecstatic. "It's absolutely mindblowing," she says. "This is like a dream tour for me."
While the tour showcases a solo album, to use the same lonely adjective in regards to the show itself would be a mistake. She shares her tour bus with a dozen people, primarily The Danger Ensemble, a collective of Australian performers who share not only transport and living space with Palmer, but the stage as well.
This posse of Australian madmen and madwomen plays an enormous part in Palmer's shows, performing both onstage and scattered throughout the venue, frequently coming and going for costume changes. "It's not like there's a storyline or a plot," says Palmer of the cast's contribution. "It's a theatrical manifestation of what's going on."
In addition to what the Ensemble members bring to the audience, they bring something to Palmer as well -- on a personal level. In discussing the tour and the Ensemble, the word "family" tumbles gently from her lips with regularity, and it's clear they're not just a part of the proceedings, but also a support system. "I use them as armor for the brutality of the rock world," Palmer jokes -- kind of. Though she says the bus can get crowded at times, with "a lot of egos stuffed into a small space," the cons don't even begin to challenge the pros. "It's been weird to play solo shows," Palmer says. "I got to hand-select my family for this tour. It's like picking your household, who do you want to live with, to see when you wake up in the morning ... I really feed off their energy."
While Palmer is currently extolling the virtues of her extended family, her fervor doesn't necessarily forecast the bell tolling for the Dresden Dolls. Her partnership with Viglione wasn't only musical, and the boundaries of all aspects of their relationship were tested in the years of touring with the Dolls. "We were putting so much energy and effort into keeping our relationship above water," she says. The present separation isn't meant to be a permanent one, but as far as a future Dresden Dolls tour is concerned, Palmer is noncommittal. "It's just a break, but it's still not certain what will happen and when," she says. "This wasn't the kiss of death."
Amanda Palmer and The Danger Ensemble, with The Builders and the Butchers, and Vermillion Lies. 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 29 (doors at 7 p.m.). Mr. Small's Theatre, 400 Lincoln Ave., Millvale. $20. All ages. 412-821-4447
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