For many people, the “goth” label conjures up images of dour, maudlin musicians in fishnets singing humorless, wanky tales of woe. And though there were plenty of pairs of fishnets on display at the Birch North Park Theater on Friday night, there was also plenty of fun to be had.
First, San Diego’s London Below provided a solid opening, thanks to a keyboard-heavy set that owed more than a small debt to headliner Amanda Palmer. The backing band looked like test subjects from the Marilyn Manson School of Cosmetology, and frontwoman Zoe Tantrum strutted around the stage with a corset and fire-red mohawk like some kind of sexy Cenobite. Her vocals comfortably toed the line between operatic and shrill, leaping to impossibly high notes that at times resembled a theremin. Unfortunately, London Below were less adept at handling their songs’ quieter moments, and the meandering verses caused their set to fizzle nearly as often as it sizzled.
The middle band, The Jane Austen Argument, took to the stage as unknowns, and left it to a standing ovation. The duo, comprised of Tom Dickins and Jen Kingwell, was imported from Australia by Palmer herself, and her taste proved to be impeccable. The Jane Austen Argument were visibly nervous to be playing their first US show, but their humility only endeared them to the crowd even more. The pair traded vocal duties, but it was Dickins’ Broadway-caliber voice that truly enthralled. From the powerful opener “Under the Rainbow” onward, the nervous man in the black angel wings and tutu captivated. And when he finished that song with an a cappella homage to the Judy Garland classic that inspired it, the ensuing silence was shattered by one attendee, who succinctly spoke for the rest of the audience: “Wow.”
Finally, Amanda Palmer herself emerged for a loose, intimate set that saw her interacting with the crowd both between and during songs. The 730-seat venue was packed, but the former Dresden Doll acted like she was playing for a handful of close friends, agreeably catering her set to the crowd’s eager requests. Whether behind the keyboard or on ukulele, she tackled each song with a cool but unpretentious confidence. From the suggestiveness of “Icarus,” to the clever wordplay of “I Want You, But I Don’t Need You,” to the introspective “In My Mind,” Palmer proudly displayed the cleverness and sincerity that have earned her such a devoted following.
To the crowd’s delight, Palmer also brought The Jane Austen Argument back out to accompany her on a few songs. The first of those collaborations, “Delilah” — off The Dresden Dolls’ 2006 album Yes, Virginia… — was one of the evening’s highlights. Dickins had no idea he’d be performing the song (and consequentially hadn’t rehearsed it), but that didn’t stop him from stealing the show with his mournful, haunting backup vocals.
Palmer’s set had plenty of other great moments too: the potty-mouthed audience participation on “Map of Tasmania,” the academic concerns of “Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic,” a cover of Regina Spektor’s “The Flowers,” and a rewrite of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” sung from the perspective of a truck-stop hooker. Her “encore” consisted mostly of her answering questions submitted by fans, and her responses were frequently witty and always insightful. The evening finally came to an end with a performance of the hilarious “Ukulele Anthem,” which proved that the dark-minded songwriter can be every bit as effective when dealing in sunnier material.
But hey, if “goth” music can be this fun, who needs the sunny stuff?
Photos – Amanda Palmer, The Jane Austen Argument, and London Below at the Birch North Park Theater – October 28, 2011