The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

The Dresden Dolls Reunion at the Wilbur Theater: Night One

It’s about ten after six on a cold night in Boston. I’m leaning against a wall on Tremont Street directly underneath the billboard outside the Wilbur Theatre. Every now and then, the billboard flips to a close-up of the faces of Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione in full make-up, with a simple tag line: THE DRESDEN DOLLS. TONIGHT. I last saw the Dolls opening for Nine Inch Nails at the Orpheum Theatre on the ‘intimate’ leg of their With Teeth tour in May of 2005. It had been far too long. A few folks get in line behind me and start loudly talking about various somewhat embarrassing topics, presumably in a fashion designed to draw attention to themselves. It was mostly entirely infuriating. But I had my phone and my iPod, and busied myself watching YouTube videos and listening to Mastodon to drown them out. It basically worked. At around 6:40 or so, some people dressed in what I can only describe as gypsy steampunk marching band outfits pick up some instruments and start playing. More folks joined in until Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band is complete, marching up and down the line entertaining the die hards with their unique brand of music. The band consists of (as far as I can tell) two alto saxes, a tenor sax, a baritone sax, a marching bass drum (with attached cymbal), a marching snare (with attached cowbell), two trombones, a violin, a trumpet, an accordion, a clarinet, a large trap drum, and a tin pail masquerading as another snare. They play crazy eastern European gypsy cabaret klezmer marching music, and sneak in a cover of “SexyBack”.

Somewhere during ENSMB’s performance, a few girls join up with the guy in line in front of me. They’re all quite pleasing to the eye (this is a Dresden Dolls show, after all, and people are certainly willing to dress the part), but one of them in particular manages to combine the body type of my biggest high school crush with the facial structure of my biggest college crush, basically creating a gestalt entity of what would theoretically be considered the girl of my dreams from a physical perspective. Obviously, I have no idea who this girl is, or what her interests are beyond the simple ‘she probably likes the Dresden Dolls too’ angle, but I can’t help but be transfixed by what her beauty represents. She’s not a supermodel (and that is not an insult), but she still mesmerizes me in my own quiet little way. I do my best not to stare, but I can’t help looking over to her periodically, marveling at how she represents the apex of the loved-and-lost portion of my romantic history. She’s about 5’9” without heels, with dirty blonde hair in a close cropped boy cut, wearing this adorable rust colored suit jacket with quite a few ear piercings and Cleopatra eyeliner. Just awesome. And, I mean, come on, it’s a Dresden Dolls show. How can something like this not happen?

The doors open about ten minutes late, and we funnel inside. I am given a green bracelet on my right wrist to represent the right to consume alcohol, and a blue bracelet on my left wrist to represent the right to be in the ‘floor 2’ section of the Wilbur floor, which contains the stage. You see, the Wilbur is set up in a pretty strange way that reminds me of how much I hated going to metal shows at the Palladium in Worcester back when I was the type of person that could be found going to metal shows at the Palladium in Worcester. There are either four or five sections on the floor, and depending on what kind of GA floor tickets you bought, you’re beholden to staying in that one section. Literally. There are fences. No barbed wire or armed guards, but you’re basically penned in. Luckily, I knew about this ahead of time due to doing some research on the seating chart, and made sure that my tickets for both nights was in the coveted floor 2 section, allowing full access to the lip of the stage. I have the opportunity to be flush with the stage on the Brian Viglione side, but the combination of not needing to be right up on things and a desire to go to the bathroom causes me to run out and back, and end up settling in about three people deep center stage. Unintentionally, I actually end up basically right next to girl of my dreams and her friend, who has taken off her coat to reveal a bodice and what can only be described as gigantic cleavage (ah, goth/punk crowds). The marching band marches right into the building and sets up in the middle of our section to entertain the crowd while we wait for the show to start. Believe me, it’s such an improvement over the standard ‘pump some music through the PA system’ treatment I usually get at concerts. Girl of my dreams and I exchange a few glances, her eyes transmitting a look of ‘hey, how’s it going’ more than the aggressive ‘why are you looking at me?’ but I don’t actually do anything about it.

Soon enough, Hooray for Earth hits the stage. They’re a fine if unremarkable spacey rock band that sadly is plagued by some technical issues on the first two songs. A malfunctioning reverb/delay pedal causes constant feedback during their first song, and some kind of amp malfunction leads to the second song being played almost entirely without bass guitar. I can tell they’re frustrated, but they soldier on and finish the set without incident. They’re entertaining enough as a distraction, but their musical style doesn’t really mesh well with The Dolls (I expect Bitter Ruin to go over a lot better tonight), so they take the role of opening band as time filler instead of opening band as surprise attraction. I get these a lot, and these guys weren’t nearly as bad as most of the opening bands I have a tendency to see, so it’s fine. The gypsy marching band of doom makes a second appearance and plays ‘SexyBack’ again. At one point, the sax section snakes their way through our part of the crowd, and one of them stops playing right in front of me, yells out ‘Galactus! Awesome!’ (I’m wearing my I Eat Planets shirt from Diesel Sweeties) and we high five. More glances with the girl of my dreams, more general cowardice on my part, and the lights turn out.

Amanda Fucking Palmer and Brian Viglione come out to center stage and take a bow. They’re really close to me; I haven’t been this close to a stage at a concert in a good long while. Amanda’s wearing a red kimono and a Weimer Republic style general’s hat (not really sure of the official designation for that kind of hat) with the word ‘LOVE’ scrawled across her chest with eyeliner. Brian’s got his standard issue dark green cargo shorts and a black vest with his bowler. They open with “Sex Changes,” which is odd, considering they announced they would be playing all of The Dresden Dolls on Tuesday and all of Yes, Virginia on Wednesday. They follow up the confusion with “Modern Moonlight” and “Mrs. O” until Amanda explained that ‘we made a promise’ and ‘that was just us fucking with you guys’ at which point they launch into “Good Day” after a lengthy monologue from Amanda about the night they met ten years and two days ago. For your reference, the set list:

Sex Changes
Modern Moonlight
Mrs. O
Good Day
Girl Anachronism
Missed Me
Half Jack
672
Coin-Operated Boy
Gravity
Bad Habit
The Perfect Fit
The Jeep Song
Slide
Truce

Encore:
Mein Herr
Pierre
Boston
War Pigs

So these thoughts are going to be mostly disjointed, but here goes.

It’s good being around passionate music fans again, especially in the case of such a rabid fanbase as the Dolls. The feminist energy is through the roof, as I’m pretty heavily surrounded by girls and gay men, and we’re all singing our hearts out, destroying our voices. The loudest reaction comes from the specifically sexual or romantic lyrics (the first great example is the “Hurry up and stick it in/You’ll never know when it will end” line from “Sex Changes”). I record basically all of Amanda’s introductory speech and all of “Good Day” on my Droid’s video camera. It actually turns out pretty well. The crowd is boisterous, and the band is just as on fire as the protagonist of “Good Day.”  It’s very odd hearing “Girl Anachronism” so early in a Dresden Dolls set. It’s basically always either the pre-encore closer or the final song of the show. Brian makes it his personal mission during “Missed Me” to crack up himself, the entire audience, and Amanda by acting out the song in an incredibly over the top vaudevillian style, which causes Amanda to lose it mid verse when she actually sees what he’s doing. Brian Viglione is an immensely talented man that can do anything. At some point, Amanda ditches the kimono, revealing only a black bra and the LOVE pseudo-tattoo. Amanda and Brian always do an extended musical interlude opening to “Half Jack,” which in this case includes a very long and ludicrously unfair for other drummers solo performance by Mr. Viglione that basically causes me to almost lose my shit from the pure awesomeness. I can only hold onto my pork pie for dear life as Brian turns into a churning whirlwind of hands, feet, and sticks, producing a maelstrom of snare, tom, and cymbal sounds, all entirely in unison, reveling in their chaotic perfection, a wall of aggressive sound, an orgy of percussive wonder, all entirely effortless in its execution, which I’m pretty sure is impossible, leading to me wonder for a while whether Brian is some kind of robot sent from a future where drummers rule the world and create bots to do their work for them (I think I’m reading House of Leaves too much right now, given the structure of that ‘sentence’). Girl of my dreams obviously sees the emotion in my eyes and body language watching Brian do his thing, and touches me on the back in a sort of ‘wow, that was awesome’ way. We exchange looks again. Another soon to be missed opportunity.

There is also another long interlude (sadly, I cannot remember where in the concert this actually happens) in which Amanda announces that her parents are here, and gets into a very long rant about how they must be disappointed that she changed her middle name from ‘MacKinnon’ to ‘Fucking’ because it looks better at the top of a website. She wants to create a compromise, maybe change it to ‘MacFucking,’ which turns into a conversation about the scottish MacFucking clan with their crest consisting of middle fingers, but being ironically a very peaceful sort that never shear or slaughter their sheep. It’s a deliriously bizarre and hilarious interlude. She talks before “Bad Habit” about how she used it to torture other people on the floor when at Wesleyan by playing it very loudly late at night. In standard “The Jeep Song” fashion, Brian brings a bunch of folks up from the crowd to act as backup singers, including a few girls next to me. I shift over a little bit to save their spots, which also puts me a little closer to girl of my dreams. “The Jeep Song” is probably the least good song on The Dresden Dolls, but it’s still massively entertaining live. AFP then discusses that “Slide” was written when she was fifteen, and she considers it her first real song. “Slide” is a particularly haunting and beautiful song to hear live; it’s on the Roundhouse DVD, but that doesn’t really compare to actually being there, watching the crescendos build before you toward the awesome climax at the end. I have a personal emotional attachment to “Truce,” which is played beautifully, and probably represents the highlight of my night. Amanda and Brian embrace and bow, and disappear from the stage amidst a torrent of adulation

When one of the roadies runs on stage to grab Amanda’s cordless mic, and Brian eventually returns by himself, it becomes pretty obvious that they’ll be opening with an acoustic guitar number, and Amanda will most likely not be singing it from the stage. Sure enough, when she appears in the opera seats wearing a gold sequined bra and the general’s cap, it’s not at all surprising that she’s about to launch into “Mein Herr,” as she traipses across the mezzanine hugging fans and friends alike. “Pierre” is always a treat, and once again gives the opportunity for Brian to show off his comedic side. It’s basically fate that they play “Boston” at this point considering their location, and since it’s arguably one of the most nakedly emotional songs in an entire library of naked emotion, we don’t even sing along, making sure that Amanda’s voice dominates the room. Of course, everything ends on Election Day with their thundering rendition of “War Pigs,” another showcase song for Brian Viglione’s drumming insanity, and I record this one in its entirety as well, never moving the camera from Brian’s kit for almost the entire song.

And then it’s over. Brian and Amanda hug, kiss, and bow, shaking hands with the folks in the front row. They leave, the house lights go up, and people start to file out into the night. I consider lingering to try and strike up a conversation with girl of my dreams, but she’s still lingering at the front of the stage with her friends and I have to get home and get to bed to make sure I can function at work tomorrow. Ah well, perhaps she’ll be at the Wednesday show and I’ll get another shot.

I was originally going to write something here about the Dolls and their musical style as a band independent of the concert, but considering there’s another two plus hours of Dolls tonight (I don’t think that’s sunk in yet. I get to do this again), I’ll save it for the wrap up for that show.