There have been many great artistic couples down through the ages. Now a days there seems to be more celebrity couplings than any real co-joining of artistic talents. So when I first began to hear rumours writer Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda Palmer (also known as AFP) were romantically involved I was intrigued. It felt a little odd to be interested in the love life of two people I’ve never met, but as they were both individuals whose work I admired and respected I have to admit to a somewhat puerile curiosity. While I tried to tell myself it was different from the way “others” obsessed over the latest celebrity gossip, if I am being perfectly honest with myself, the only difference was I wasn’t reading about them in the tabloids, I was reading about their relationship via their twitter feeds and blogs.
When the couple married in 2011 they decided to take what amounts to a busman’s holiday, and did a short tour of the North American West coast from Vancouver Canada down to Los Angeles in the States. The performances, billed as “Evenings With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman” were mixtures of song and story telling. After the tour the couple decided to crowd-fund a three-CD set of the tour culled from the shows. Initially only available to those who participated in the crowd funding venture, An Evening With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman is now available to the general public.
For those somehow unfamiliar with the two principles perhaps a little background is in order. Gaiman is the creator of some of the most inventive fiction written in the past two decades. From his beautifully frightening children’s stories, Coralaine and The Graveyard Book, his pure fantasy, Stardust and Neverwhere, to the brilliant study of humanity’s relationships with their deities, American Gods, he took genre fiction into the realm of literature. A combination of whimsical humour, a deep understanding of human psychology and a refusal to believe the sky’s the limit when it comes to imagination means he has the capacity to both terrify you and leave you breathless with laughter within the pages of the same book.
Palmer, after a career that included everything from busking as a living statue and being one half of the punk/cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, has established herself as one of today’s premier independent musicians. Not only is her music a unique blend of styles, she brings a theatricality to her performances as original as her material. However, what has distinguished her from her contemporaries is her commitment to making and maintaining a connection with the people she creates her music for. From couch surfing from one fan’s living room to the next as she made her way around the world playing venues as diverse as the Sydney Opera House to bathrooms for groups of thirty people, to today where she use’s social media to take requests on stage during live internet broadcasts of her shows, she continues to build a rapport with her audience few other artists enjoy. More than anything else it was this personal connection with her fans that allowed her to raise over a million dollars when she crowd source funded her most recent album, Theatre Is Evil.
Needless to say the show put on by these two, and the variety of special guests who showed up at the different venues, was not your typical rock and roll concert. How often on a concert CD does the in between song chatter constitute some of the highlights of the recording? The interplay between Gaiman and Palmer is not only intelligent, it’s insightful, hilarious and sometimes very personal. However, no matter how much fun they are talking to each other, they are that much more interesting performing their eclectic mix of material.
Palmer has a wealth of her own material to draw upon. You’ll hear versions of “Map Of Tasmania”, (both a celebration of a woman’s body and a critique of censors who have no problem allowing images of human dismemberment but are horrified by depictions of the naked form) “Ukulele Anthem” , “Dear Old House” and the intriguingly titled “Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic”. The latter being her take on Lady Gaga, pop music and artistic creation in general crammed within the 2 minutes and 53 seconds of the standardized pop song format. However, in typical Palmer fashion, it is the most untypical pop song you’ll ever hear. Satiric, sincere and introspective, she not only makes a case for pop music to be considered art, she expresses her own insecurities around performing and critiques the media’s reactions to women pop stars. No wonder you’ll never hear her songs on the radio.
Ironically enough, while I’d never heard Gaiman read any of his work before listening to this recording, I had heard him sing something he’d written before. Palmer and he, as well as friends Ben Folds and Damian Kulash had produced the album Nighty Night as part of a project called “8 in 8”. The object was to go into the recording studio and write, produce and record eight songs in eight hours during a live web cast. While they fell short of their eight song goal they were able to produce six tracks including one sung by Gaiman that’s included in this collection, “The Problem With Saints”. While Gaiman isn’t the singer his wife is, his delivery of this piece is perfect.
Musically it sounds like it stepped out of a Noel Coward play from the mid 1920s, dixie land jazz meets British music hall, while the lyrics are a biting attack on the single mindedness of fanatics everywhere. Gaiman’s half spoken, half sung delivery works perfectly for this type of piece as he can allow the music to provide emphasize for the lyrics and concentrate on communicating the meaning of the words. Listening to this and comparing it with his readings of things like his poem “The Day The Saucers Came” or the story “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”, you’ll notice he takes a similar approach in all three forms of presentation. His primary concern is to allow the words to communicate their meanings to the audience. Unlike many who I’ve heard read he understands it’s just as much a performance as if he were singing, and is able to hold his audience as easily reading solo as when he’s being backed by music.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of this three CD set is the wonderful informality of the concerts. The title is very apt as it feels more like you’ve been invited over to Gaiman’s and Palmer’s house to spend some time with them than as if you’re sitting in the audience. While the invisible fourth wall separating audience from performer is present during some of the actual performing, its definitely not a permanent fixture. Not only do they both talk directly to the audience in their introductions to songs, they put aside about ten minutes for a segment entitled “Ask Neil and Amanda” where they field questions posed to them via Twitter.
The questions range from the silly, “What would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?” or “Any advice for a shy person”. Gaiman’s answer to the latter was marrying Amanda Palmer, or somebody equally as outgoing, because that way everybody will be concentrating on the other person and you can on going be shy and nobody will notice. However, what’s important about the sequence isn’t really the content of their answers, it’s the atmosphere created by their casualness in answering them. It not only makes the listener feel more like a participant in a conversation, it also helps you realize how little difference there is between who they are as performers and who they are as people.
Usually when you go see a concert the people on stage hide behind a persona of some kind. Whether it be simply they are the performer and you’re the audience or they have a character they assume while on stage, it can’t help but erect a barrier between you and them. In the case of Gaiman and Palmer, you soon realize they aren’t wearing any masks. As a result, even on the CD, there is an intimacy to this performance like none you’ve probably ever experienced before in a popular culture setting.
An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer is unlike any other triple-CD live concert experience you’ll ever have. Not only because of the content, but because of the two remarkable people at the centre of events. There aren’t many three-CD sets of anything which leave you wanting more, but as the final track on the final CD of comes to an end, you’ll find your self wishing it wasn’t over. While this is definitely not your conventional concert CD, and perhaps that’s why its so compelling, it is one of the best I’ve ever experienced.