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The Dresden Dolls – Bringing Performance Art Back to Rock and Roll

photo credit: jim narcy, taken at SXSW ’06

In the sea of bands that infiltrated Austin the week of SXSW, The Dresden Dolls commanded everyone’s attention when they performed at Stubbs under the nighttime sky. Introducing songs from their spanking new sophomore release, Yes, Virgina, lead singer/pianist Amanda Palmer and drummer/guitarist Brian Viglione mesmerized and tantalized the otherwise, slightly haggard audience.

“I learned my lesson the first time I went a couple of years ago to not to try to see any bands. I saw a total of two bands and I was there for five days,” Palmer states from experience during some downtime in her hometown of Boston. “I knew I would burn myself out if I tried to do everything. I just have to count on the fact that we tour so much and we’ll eventually see everyone we want to see on the road.”

Five years before the Dolls toured as an opening act for Nine Inch Nails, Palmer commanded the attention of her now partner in crime, Viglione, with her frenzied piano play and wickedly intense sing-song style at a friend’s Halloween party in 2000.

From there, the Boston street performer known as the Eight-Foot Bride and the metal/alternative rock drummer collided their styles to become a dynamic, performance duo The Dresden Dolls. Small, nightclub gigs eventually led to the Doll’s ability to tour on a more consistent basis, turning those shows into a collection of live recordings, A is For Accident, which was self-released in 2003.

The Doll’s eclectic theatrics and genre defiant musical persona was then catapulted in 2004 by their debut (on Palmer’s 8 Foot Records), moving the band’s popularity and career into overdrive. Their popularity grew further through the airplay of videos from the album, “Coin-Operated Boy” and “Girl Anachronism,” on MTV2 and MTVu.

It was also the year that Roadrunner Records nabbed them, and the national and international tours continued into 2005, taking the duo across Europe. This included Germany where Palmer had received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and performed at a Cologne theater years before, the land and culture that inspired much of the Dresden Dolls’ theatrical presentation and identity.

As a student of theater, Palmer is thankful that the desire and popularity for performance art and actual rock shows is getting closer to where it once was.

“I am of the opinion that things took a massive swerve in the ‘90s when grunge was huge. It was an amplified hopelessness,” she points out with an exasperated laugh. “It also ushered in something accidentally, or not so accidentally, which was a misguided sense of what it means to be an authentic performer, or an authentic writer, or an authentic rock star. All of the sudden, being a flamboyant performer, which was very much a part of the ‘80s, was completely uncool. You had to be out there in your street clothes singing your suicide note or it wasn’t the real deal.”

Experiencing a Dresden Dolls show exceeds expectations of the real deal. Their strength beats loudly for all to see and hear, from the pounding of the piano keys and heart-on-a-sleeve lyrics, to the sweat that drips and sprays from Viglione’s brow.

“It took a long time for things to come full circle again. We’re seeing people re-accept the fact that a rock show is still a performance. Rock is still entertainment. Music is still theater.”

And in any live environment where humans are involved, things are bound to go awry from time to time. Palmer embraces those times when things go wrong during a show, seeing them as an opportunity to connect to the audience and make their show even more memorable.

“It’s the nights when things get fucked up, or the power goes out, the equipment breaks, those are the things that make coming to the show real, which is why people want to go see a rock show. They want to go have a real experience that’s human. And you know it’s human when the snare drum breaks and you have to replace the head…and [the fans] develop a sense of solidarity with the band.”

The new material from Yes, Virginia, connects with the many facets of the human condition and has the potential to develop an even deeper relationship with their brigade of “bewildered children of all ages.”

According to Palmer, “Dirty Business” was written six or seven years before the Dolls were playing together. “I started dating this guy who was amongst a crowd of people who couldn’t stand me and I really couldn’t stand them. It was an idea that was basically dedicated to that whole crowd.”

On the song Palmer describes the type of woman that men have dated, right before they’ve dated us, “She’s the kind girl who leaves out condoms on the bedroom dresser / Just to make you jealous of the men she fucked before you met her,” and feeling the backlash of someone else’s sins and manipulations.

“Modern Moonlight” delves into the use of technology and our addictive natures when it comes to cell phones or other communication devices, while “My Alcoholic Friends” would relate well with the bar-hopping crowd here in Denver, with an arm-in-arm bouncing soundtrack. Cloaked in a veil of new wave energy, Palmer’s piano tidal waves and vocals from “Necessary Evil” could easily harmonize with those the band has opened up for in the past, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson of the B52’s.

Irony, whether purposeful or not, presents itself on the delicate and beautiful track, “First Orgasm,” an intricate ballad that circles around the topic of taking things into one’s own hands. When asked if she gets many inquiries from male journalists on this topic, Palmer replied with candor, “Yea, it’s fine. I don’t think it’s all that gender specific,” adding with a snicker, “Everybody masturbates!”

It’s not difficult to see why she enjoyed the Morrissey interview at SXSW, stating, “He was just so wonderfully blunt. [It] was totally inspiring. It reminded me that interviews are not sacred.”

During that time she was also able to meet up with her friends in the Austin based band, You Will Know Me By The Trail of the Dead, who were working on their next album. “I think they’re just brilliant. I went to their show the night before our show. It turns out that they were in the middle of recording a new record. So I ended up spending my weekend over at their recording studio and playing piano, which was fucking awesome.”

After their tour through Denver this Tuesday, The Dresden Dolls stay on the road and will later add Bonnaroo to their notched belt of mega festival performances, along with Fiji, Coachella, and Glastonbury. This whirlwind of activities and constant touring over the past few years may just have been the inspiration behind “Me & the Minibar,” where she seems to be singing a solo tune to herself, toasting a birthday in yet another hotel room.

“It’s really difficult to be moving constantly, but I’m adjusting gradually pretty well,” she related with honesty. “Being on tour is a real cock-tease because you’re in these beautiful cities but you’re working. You don’t even have time to take a walk.”

Produced by Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie (Radiohead, The Pixies, Hole), Road Runner will release Yes, Virginia on April 18, which will be accompanied by a CD booklet full of artwork submitted by fans, painters and designers from all over the world.

But to get “something beyond what you would get if you just tossed the CD in your stereo,” take Palmer’s advice and ours, and experience a different type of musical theater, one that will forever penetrate your memory and remind you of what a real rock show is all about. The Dresden Dolls play the BlueBird Tuesday, April 4 with Denver’s Uphollow.


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