The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

The Dresden Dolls Reunion at the Wilbur Theater: Night Two

It’s 6:12 pm and I’m once again standing outside the Wilbur Theatre, cold and alone in a line of like-minded people, slightly further away from the entrance compared to Tuesday. It’s funny watching the types of people that are attracted to go to a show for a band like the Dresden Dolls.Most of these folks are probably pretty similar personality-wise; it takes a certain something to be in tune with Brechtian punk cabaret, after all. What’s intriguing is the way we choose to dress and act, ranging widely from full on gothed out leather and makeup to a suit and tie coming straight from work, as well as basically the combination of the two, which is me (I’m wearing a black dress shirt and black pants with a blood red and black tie, black leather trenchcoat and black pork pie hat). I see it all in the line. It reminds me of singing along to Tuesday night’s set alongside 15 year old high school students and 40+ year old working professionals. Music does that to the world. It brings us together and unites us, regardless of backgrounds, personal bias, prejudice. Sometimes you just let it all wash away and enjoy the moment.

After about twenty minutes, I see some folks from Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band show up, ready to entertain us again in line and during the intermissions. They start playing around 6:40, and while I’m tapping my foot, nearly getting lost in the wave of saxy klezmer goodness, I almost don’t notice girl of my dreams and her two friends from Tuesday walk past me. I pause. Holy shit. There she is, looking just as beautiful as before in that awesome rusty blazer. They take their place right around the corner of Tremont and Stuart about twenty-five to thirty people away from me. I'm pretty sure she recognizes me from last night, as I do catch her looking in what I believe is my direction a few times while in line.

Time for a non-musical aside

People talk about how physical attraction isn’t always the end all be all, nor is it even a requirement for a functioning relationship, and that’s entirely true. But it’s amazing how different it is compared to being mentally attractive or attracted to someone. There’s no immediate barometer for something like that. People don’t walk around with a billboard behind them proclaiming their likes/dislikes/hobbies/interests. Sure, that exists everywhere online from Facebook to dating sites, but there’s no corollary for that in the ‘real world’ beyond the realm of the internet (some day, of course, we’ll have some kind of wacky technology that’ll let us see someone on the street and immediately access their Facebook profile based on facial recognition software or something, and then we’re in the middle of Minority Report). It is entirely possible that if I pursue this mystery woman, I could find out that we would not mesh at all, and nothing would possibly come of it. It’s also possible that her mind could be just as alluring as her looks. It’s possible she has a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend. Or a whole manner of other things both potentially positive and negative. Maybe she’s in high school (doubt that one) or early college and is just too young. Seems unlikely she’s too old. She’s Schrödinger’s Woman. A twisting mass of possibilities. All I know for sure is that she’s incredibly beautiful and sexy.

End aside (for the most part)…

 

The doors open a little after seven and I end up right back where I was Tuesday night. Center stage. I’m actually a little closer to that stage this time, two rows of people deep instead of three. Of course, because this is the way of the world sometimes, the two friends of girl of my dreams walk in and set up camp right next to me. Well that’s convenient. I assume that girl of my dreams will be joining them (us?) soon. The marching band has moved their way inside, setting up shop in the opera box on stage right of the mezzanine level. Watching them, my eyes wander, and I see girl of my dreams. In a seat in the mezzanine. By herself. Well, fuck. That complicates matters. Now, obviously, I can’t do anything about that, and would be forced to wait until after the end of the show to even consider approaching her. Rats. Well, nothing else to do but settle in for a night of awesome music. The band finishes their set, the lights dim, and Amanda (Mac)Fucking Palmer hits the stage in her red kimono to introduce Bitter Ruin.

I first became aware of Bitter Ruin when Amanda did a webcast of her Brooklyn loft party/concert a few weeks back, featuring Bitter Ruin as one of the many musical guests. They have a simple enough set-up. Girl sings. Guy sings and plays guitar. They’re charmingly British. And I adore charmingly British people. Plus, as an added bonus, Ben plays a wicked guitar and has an obscenely unfair voice that pairs exceptionally well with partner in crime Georgia’s soprano. After the Party on the Internet awesomeness, I bought one of their EP’s on iTunes, and thus was pretty much familiar with the entirety of their set save two of the songs, which were both pretty awesome. To whit, here’s what they played:

Chewing Gum
Trust
Soldier
The Vice
Relief
Brand New Me (I’m not completely positive on the title of this one)
Beware

Bitter Ruin was pretty much destined for extreme success with the crowd in the way that Hooray for Earth wasn’t on Tuesday. Hooray for Earth, while a decent enough band in their own right, doesn’t really mesh well with the style of The Dresden Dolls or their fanbase, and while they weren’t bad, they completely failed to captivate the audience. Bitter Ruin, on the other hand, had us eating out of the palm of their collective hand by the time Georgia unleashed the “Get it out get it out get it out get it out!” refrain at the end of the first verse of “Chewing Gum.” They’ve very much a cabaret act in the vein of the Dolls, with Georgia’s smeared eye shadow and the general theatrics of their music and stage presence. You might think that the simple combination of an acoustic guitar and two voices might not necessarily be ready for prime time, but Bitter Ruin entirely pulls it off. They’re undeniably humble people, and at one point Georgia takes a picture of the crowd to be put on Facebook so we can all tag ourselves. Bitter Ruin to me is a band somewhat like The Exit, in that they’re a group I never would have had a chance to know without touring with a band I like (in the case of The Exit, it was Muse), but turn out to be completely worthy of my time and money. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s usually special when it does, and it happened with Bitter Ruin. I will go out of my way to support them every time they find themselves in New England.

Another intermission between acts means more music from the marching band, this time set up with us in the pit. Even though I have seen them play a lot over the course of two nights, and they probably played each of their songs at least three times, it’s still better than prerecorded music played over a PA. I twiddle my thumbs, waiting patiently for the Dolls. Girl of my dreams either isn’t in her seat or is obstructed by the crowds milling about and standing up to watch the marching band. Soon enough, Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song” hits the PA and the Dolls hit the stage to play the following songs:

Sex Changes
Backstabber
Modern Moonlight
My Alcoholic Friends
Delilah
Dirty Business
First Orgasm
Mrs. O
Shores of California
Necessary Evil
Mandy Goes to Med School
Me and the Mini Bar
Sing

Encore:
Mein Herr
Coin-Operated Boy
War Pigs

No kimono on stage for Amanda tonight. It’s game time. They launch directly into “Sex Changes” and proceed to rumble through Yes, Virginia without pretense. I really love watching them play “Modern Moonlight” live; it’s not just a wonderful showcase for Viglione’s just ludicrously unfair drumming skills, but I just think it’s the second best example/indication of what the Dolls are capable of live (the best is still “Girl Anachronism,” although it might actually be “War Pigs,” now that I think about it), though “Dirty Business” is also a great example of their prowess as a live act. Things end up being a little messy on “My Alcoholic Friends,” in which Amanda has some difficulty with the lyrics and needs to restart the song multiple times to the frustration of Brian. Georgia from Bitter Ruin hits the stage to sing backup on “Delilah,” playing the role of Delilah herself as well as handling harmony duties. It’s an incredibly moving and powerful rendition of the song, and represents one of the three emotional highs of the night. The second, “First Orgasm,” is prefaced by Amanda trying to explain/come to grips with the fact that it is a song that is both devastatingly sad and devastatingly funny at the same time (which prompts Brian to refer to it as a “dramedy,” which prompts me to make a bad joke about camels. It gets some laughs from the folks around me despite myself). The song itself is about being crushingly and suffocatingly alone, but still manages to sprinkle in some double entendre and juxtaposition to make you smile your way through the misery. I’ll talk more about this a little later, but I think a song like “First Orgasm” is one of the positives about the Dolls’ choice to play their two albums entirely, as we wouldn’t have a prayer of hearing it live otherwise. It’s a sleeper favorite of mine on Yes, Virginia; I think it’s the most nakedly emotional song from that album. “Necessary Evil” is another one we probably wouldn’t have had a chance to hear, and while it’s probably my least favorite song on Yes, Virginia, it still makes for a good live track.

“Mandy Goes to Med School” takes the “Half Jack” role of providing Brian Viglione’s drum solo of extreme awesomeness, and he doesn’t disappoint. I actually really like the way he goes about the “Mandy” solo (you can see another version of it on the Live from the Roundhouse DVD), as it mixes a lot of styles from a sort of snare heavy march to a tom dominated swing beat and everything in between. I’m going to sound like a broken record, but I really don’t care. Anyone who calls himself or herself a drummer needs to see Brian Viglione perform. He really is the greatest drummer alive right now, which means he’s managed to surpass Bill Bruford. Which is a shocking achievement, really. But that’s how good he is. It’s unreal, really, that he even finds the ability to also have a stage presence beyond the simple act of drumming, using his incredibly expressive face to make you laugh at a moment’s notice. With the help of the drum solo, “Mandy” becomes the de facto highlight of the concert to that point. Brian then disappears (under the auspices of finding Amanda some wine) to allow for the third excruciating emotional moment of the night, the solo piano performance of “Me and the Mini Bar,” another song about being crushingly alone. It’s probably the best utilization of Amanda’s voice in the Dolls catalogue, and the acoustics of the Wilbur just lets the power of her vocals wash over you.

Then, when Brian returns (giddy and talking excitedly about his findings, including a bunch of beers, some liquor and a blender, just in case she wants to make some white Russians, only to find out she already got her wine from an assistant), we have probably the most memorable part of the night. While Brian repeatedly plays the opening chord progression from the last song on Yes, Virginia, “Sing,” Amanda proceeds to read the entirety of the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial that provided the name for the album and partial inspiration for some of the lyrics from “Mrs. O.” It’s actually a pretty fantastic piece of writing and philosophy despite the religion overtones (what can I say? I hold a grudge). Here’s an excerpt for the uninitiated:

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. -Francis P. Church

 

This is of course followed up by the gigantic singalong that is “Sing,” with all of our voices as one reaching and shaking the rafters of this beautiful little theater in Boston, a legion of fans wearing their hearts on their sleeves and their emotions in their throats, challenging the world to stand up and pay attention to the rapture of expression and cathartic release. They bow and abscond for the encore, which once again leads of with Amanda singing “Mein Herr” from the mezzanine. When she gets back to the stage, she grabs a beer from Brian’s stash and realizes she is without a bottle opener, and implores us for help. She basically walks right out to the center, and I oblige by grabbing the bottle opener on my keychain (what red blooded male in his 20’s doesn’t have a bottle opener on his keychain?) and liberate the cap from the Harpoon bottle, freeing the beer from its sudsy prison. The performance ends with “Coin-Operated Boy” and another thunderous performance of “War Pigs,” at which point the Dolls say goodnight again, and leave the stage. Considering that it’s only 11 (they played until 11:30 on Tuesday), a lot of us assumed there would be at least a short second encore involving probably one song then “Girl Anachronism.” It’s not to be, as the house lights go up, which makes the end of the concert into a bit of an anticlimax. We mill around for a while until a Wilbur staff member ushers us out onto the street.

Time for another non-musical aside…

I hang around for a bit outside trying to decide what I want to do. I’m not in a rush to get home because I took the next morning off, but I don’t have a good reason to stick around. I don’t feel like buying merch (the hoodies are so damned expensive!) and I already have the Bitter Ruin stuff. I kinda want to see if Brian and Amanda are going to make an appearance, but it’ll probably be inside, and I’m outside and not liking my chances for getting back in the venue. I do see girl of my dreams on the far end of the building with her two friends milling about not really doing anything. I should approach her, as this is my last shot, but I don’t, presumably reasoning that her friends being present could make things awkward in a sort of “hey, can I interrupt for a second to let one of you know that I think you’re devastatingly gorgeous” way that is a little easier to get away with in bars compared to on the streets of Boston. I actually do consider it for a while, but when I turn back she’s gone, relegated to the hazy mists of memory, never to be seen again, forever a bundle of quantum possibilities, Schrödinger’s woman…

Exit aside two, Enter epilogue…

 

So what do I think now that it’s over? I think the Dolls set from night two was ever so slightly disappointing, partially because night one set the bar so high. I think the format choice had its good points and bad points. While it was awesome hearing some songs you’d never have a prayer of hearing live otherwise (your “672,” your “First Orgasm,” your “Me and the Mini Bar”), I was hoping for a little more material from A is for Accident and No, Virginia. I know the folks in New York have to be jealous of us getting two shows instead of one with all kinds of songs they didn’t get to see, but I surely would have traded a “Necessary Evil” for an “Ultima Esperanza” or a “Glass Slipper” any day. I almost wish that the nights had been flipped; if the Dolls played their set from night one with Bitter Ruin as an opening act on night two, as the possible last night in a very long time we get to see them play together in their home town, beloved Boston, a town of history and memory, I think it would have cracked the very top of my favorite concerts of all time. Night one is still solidly in the top ten, probably the top five, while night two might be down closer to the top fifteen, but considering I didn’t even pay all that much for fantastic GA seating and a once in a lifetime experience, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Well, actually I would trade it for one thing: a Tom Waits tour that actually plays a city remotely close to where I’m living. But that’s a tale for another day. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Amanda and Brian, for what you did for me and for every single other person that was at the Wilbur for those two magical nights. It was an unforgettable and life changing experience. I needed that. So very very much.