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Friday, 26 October 2012

Hearts on a String: An evening with Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra.

© Joanna Thomas
Picture the scene. It is a damp Tuesday evening in late October. I cycle home from a cruddy day at the office, already running late. As I pedal against the wind I think seriously about getting back to the flat and pretending that Justin and I DON’T have tickets to a gig tonight. But we’re meeting another friend at the venue and it doesn't seem right to bail. I get in and try on four different black tops before deciding on the one that I feel most comfortable with. Question: Do I maybe wear too much black?


Student-style, we inhale salami sandwiches standing up in the kitchen before venturing back into the night. In the queue at KOKO in Camden, I am forced to laugh at my black-top indecision. As if it makes any difference among all the fabulous costumes on display. Sparkly sequined dresses, tutus, top hats, studs in ears, noses, cheeks and tongues. Chokers and corsets and slick black lipstick. It is a strange and beautiful display.

Inside is scarlet and faded gold. Small boxes jammed with photographers climb the walls. The room is noisy but poised for each twitch on the stage, each lull in the music. Everyone is waiting for the magic. We are all waiting for Amanda Fucking Palmer.

©Hannah Daisy

We drink expensive cokes in plastic pint glasses and settle near a pillar, just below the balcony. Tuesday still hovers. Work in the morning. Dark autumn skies. My feet are tired, my back aches. The people in front are too tall and I cannot see the stage. Someone else’s ponytail flicks in my face.  I am jostled and tired.

She comes on stage in her hat and dressing gown. Everyone screams. She proffers her supporting acts like gifts; a four minute bass solo, a young woman with wild hair and an extraordinary, haunting, wailing voice. Things are being laid before us, strange sounds and breaking hearts.

Supporting act Mali Sastri. © Alex Moore

When Amanda Palmer at last takes the stage it is to a deafening roar. Like or love her lyrics, the girl can sing. She can fill shouts or whispers with pure emotion. She is lively and funny and bonkers and talented. She strips to her bra a song or two in and no one bats an eyelid. Mid-song, she and the band dash about swapping instruments. The stage is in beautiful, glorious chaos. She sings perhaps my favourite of her songs, which I love for this simple, perfectly expressed sentiment:

It doesn't matter if you want it back. You've given it away. You've given it away.

We all sing along to the chorus, belting it out, jumping up and down, celebrating our past mistakes.

Falling © Alex Moore
A few songs later, Amanda Palmer spreads her arms wide, closes her eyes and falls into the crowd. As she rides a sea of hands an enormous, diaphanous wave spreads out behind her in the form of an expanse of sheer blue fabric. Fingers strain and stretch beneath it. She never misses a beat.

Flying © Alex Moore
Then she sings a sad one I do not know. I cannot see her at the piano, so I bow my head and let the room swim in and out of view.

Don’t know how long we've been lying here in fear
Too afraid to even feel
I find my glasses and you turn the light out
Roll off on your side like you've rolled away for years
Holding back those king-sized tears
Amanda Palmer – The Bed Song

© Alex Moore
At some point during the song I look up to a box on the right of the stage. Neil Gaiman is leaning against the wall and watching his wife perform. He is unobtrusive, enraptured along with the rest of us.  I nudge Justin and we smile. There are one or two people in this room who have come only in the hopes of getting a glimpse of this man, of being near him. But this is a private moment, and lasts less than a minute.

© Alex Moore
We are in the middle of a whirlwind. Amanda introduces Scroobius Pip, who performs his Letter from God to Man with the improvised backing of The Grand Theft Orchestra. He wins hundreds of new fans. His lyrics are clever and cutting and funny and thoughtful. The dystopian tune rises behind him as the song reaches its climax. With his enormous beard and immense charisma, Scroobius Pip becomes the evening’s prophet.

© Hannah Daisy

You see, I wasn't really the creator, I was just the curator of nature
I want to get something straight with homosexuals right now: I don't hate ya

Scroobius Pip - Letter from God to Man

I should not love Neil Gaiman. Every idea I have ever wanted to write has already been written by him, better than I could hope to write it. But I do love him, because no envy can conquer the pleasure of sinking into the dark, delicious worlds he creates. And what joy, what pleasure, could surpass that of seeing Neil Gaiman take the stage with a clown-attired sawchestra?

© Hannah Daisy
“Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections
© Alex Moore

Gaiman and the clown saw musicians perform ‘Psycho’ by Leon Payne. Obviously, it’s brilliant. Surely there's nothing that could top it? Amanda Palmer herself tell us there's probably only one thing in the world that could be better...

There are some things that should not happen. We are years too late, surely, to see the legendary Richard O'Brien perform the Time Warp live on stage? Such a thing cannot happen to us. Such a thing is the stuff of strange and unattainable dreams. And yet…

I didn't know how much I needed to see this until I saw it. ©Alex Moore

© Hannah Daisy

I do not think there are words to describe the joy and delirium of those three minutes. We jump to our left, we step to our right. But, without a shadow of a doubt, it is the pelvic thrusts that will really drive you insane. Our delight is enhanced by our utter surprise. A thousand people dance the Time Warp again. We are in the midst of true magic. The spell cast on us could not be more complete or more perfect.

And, finally, after endless thundering applause, Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra re-appear in one of the tiny boxes. They have two guitars and a megaphone. They reprise Want it Back, all of us stamping and clapping and singing at the top of our lungs. This finale makes us once again part of the performance.  We are all part of the magic, and it couldn't have been created without us.

© Hannah Daisy
I've been to gigs before. I've even been out on a school night before. I’m struggling to justify making this an official part of my 30@Thirty. But when I look back over this memorable year I know that my night in the crowd with Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra will be as special to me as all the other extraordinary experiences.  So, in the spirit of creative anarchy…

© Alex Moore

Eleven down, nineteen to go…

*Any actually good pictures are courtesy of Alex Moore and Hannah Daisy, who kindly responded to my Twitter appeal for snaps. Check out Alex’s awesome drawings here, and Hannah's fabulous photographs here.


  1. I enjoyed very much reading this... Creative anarchy meets with my approval.

    (Bias as ever, my favorite image is your "Heart on a String" !!!)

  2. So well written it made me feel like I was there and bitterly regret the fact that I wasn't all at the same time.

  3. Wonderful to read, felt like I was reliving it!

  4. Touched and delighted by all the comments guys, thank you so much.

    Best tweet ever:

    Amanda Palmer ‏@amandapalmer
    beautiful London review by @Joannajosefina incl great photos, @neilhimself spied upon, @Scroobiuspipyo as prophet.