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SXSW 2009: Amanda Palmer
Wednesday March 25, 2009

I headed down to SXSW with the solo showcase from Dresden Dolls vocalist Amanda Palmer (the founder of punk cabaret) being one of my most-anticipated showcases, and it seemed like she knew that somehow, and was teasing me with this knowledge.

First her connecting flight to Austin from her tour in Australia happened to be the same flight from Detroit we were on. We walked with her through the airport to the luggage carousel, chatting about the tour and making small talk. Even as jet-lagged as a trip from Australia would make one, she is very friendly, charismatic and charming, the same way she comes across on stage.

The next we saw her at the Iron Cactus, a Mexican Restaurant on 6th Street (if you go, get their guacamole, they make it at your table), and she commented that we were now destined to run into each other throughout the festival.

It actually wouldn’t be until her set at the Central Presbyterian Church that we would see her again, but it proved to be worth the anticipation.

We arrived at the church in the middle of the show by the New Orleans band Hurray for the Riff Raff, a band that employs banjo, saw, accordion and trumpet to create ethereal, heartfelt indy roots music. With a singer that reminded me a lot of Feist, they were a wonderful open for Palmer.

Palmer strode to the edge of the stage in the softly lit church and broke immediately into an a cappella rendition of “The Wind That Shakes The Barley,” with no microphone. Her voice carried through the church, while everyone set rapt.

Once she had finished the song and the applause died down, she walked to piano and simply said “hi” to the audience. Then she spoke a bit about her SXSW week and played for us.

Palmer is such a consummate showperson that this was one those performances that qualified as “an evening with” rather than a simple “concert by,” and the location of the showcase in the church added a touch of the divine. Although I’ve never been disappointed by any of the several times I’ve seen her, both solo and with the Dresden Dolls, and I have always been amazed, none of them have topped this performance, largely due to the intimate feel of the setting.

She played many of her “softer songs,” shelving many of the songs she typically uses to drown out a large bar, but still including “Guitar Hero” (a song she’d recorded with East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys,) and the manic “Runs In The Family.” Her set also included a song she’d written with Neil Gaiman, an obsessive tune called “I Google You.”

There was also a guest appearance by comedienne Margaret Cho, who played guitar with Palmer on a song to be featured on Cho’s upcoming album. It was great fun and a video of the duet is up on YouTube.

This performance was an entirely rewarding one for me; I knew I would enjoy it, but had no idea how the location would alter the feel of her music. I gained a new appreciation for her solo music, too; while I’ve always been a big fan of her solo album, seeing her songs performed in an intimate space like this, as opposed to the loud smoky, noisy club scene, adds an added connection between Palmer and her audience. Her songs have always seemed soul baring, but in this setting it seemed like she was baring her soul for us and us alone.