Ever since she first heard the Dresden Dolls, my wife has been in love with them, and she quickly made me a fan. We missed them at the Magic Stick, and then, right around the time their tour would have brought them back to Detroit, Nine Inch Nails snatched them up as an opening act, delaying their return to the Motor City by almost a year. Last night we finally got to see them, and it was by far the best show I’ve been to this year, and it probably hits my Top 10 concerts of all time list.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Dresden Dolls, their shows are not just concerts; they are events. While it’s hard to pin them to a genre, their self-described label of “punk cabaret” works quite well. Their performances are loosely based on cabaret shows, with a bit of vaudeville thrown in.
With an introduction by Krin Maren Haglund and Jonas Woolverton, two veterans of Montreal's Cirque Eloize who were our host and hostess for the evening, the show opened up with a set by Faun Fables. Picture a Rennaissance musician with a voice like a huskier version of Sinead O’Connor. That’s her. She started her set with an a cappella tune and a spoon solo played on an empty wine bottle, then threw off her shawl (“I’m done looking like your mother for now”) and picked up a guitar. Brian Viglione, the drummer for the Dolls came out to accompany her on a few tunes. Her set was short and sweet, and very much worth being there from the beginning.
Another vaudeville aspect of these shows stems from the fact that the action is nonstop. Between bands, a sort of center ring is set up on the dance floor, and various performers entertain the crowd. First up was a contortionist, Alexa (whose livejournal can be found here). Alexa was even willing to entertain a few questions about contortionism after the performance from a drunken showgoer, namely me.
Q: Does it hurt?
A: Not usually.
Q: Do you have any special abilities for this, or is it just a lot of stretching?
A: It’s all just stretching. I stretch for three hours a day.
There you have it. If you have the time and dedication, you too can be a contortionist. Even with this secret out, I wouldn’t worry about job security. There are a lot of things I could master with time and dedication; I don’t seem to have much of either.
Next up Krin and Jonas did a surreal performance that involved ballet, an accordian and wig juggling. Any further attmpts to explain would be even more confusing. We’ll leave it at that.
The next act was DeVotchka. This band defies description, but may be one of the best party bands I’ve ever heard. With a sound that’s very Eastern-European, blended with jazz and a bit of mariachi; they reminded me a lot of the Leningrad Cowboys without the goofy outfits. Their set was awesome, and at one point they broke in to The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs”. They had such a great take on it, that it wasn’t until I realized I was singing along that I knew the song. Nice.
The range of instruments was amazing as well, with all of the band members switching up. Let me sum up their set with this statement: when a band has an accordian, tuba, and a mandolin going at the same time, and the mandolin player is also playing a theremin with the neck of his mandolin, well you know that band has to rock! They are the favored band to play my plague party!
In between the sets Krin and Jonas came back and did another bizzare bit of performance that involved rolling around in a giant hula hoop. I don’t know who comes up with this stuff, but I was amazed.
Now, the moment we were waiting for; the Dresden Dolls took the stage. The lights weren’t up, but I quickly realized they were dressed as the White stripes, with the black suit and red dress. As they groped and and mashed a little bit on the stage, I was seriously laughing to myself as they mocked one of Detroit’s more popular music acts.
As the lights came up and they took their positions, it became even funnier; vocalist Amanda Palmer was dressed as Jack, and Brian was Meg! They tore into a cover of “My Doorbell”, which was even funnier to us, because that was the last song on the radio as we had parked outside St. Andrew’s, and we had bitched about it being stuck in our heads (Dammit! Now it’s in my head again.) Brian even did his best to imitate Meg White’s rudimentary drum skills.
After “My Doorbell”, the Dolls pulled a move that was funny and entertaining. As “The William Tell Overture” played on the PA, assistants rushed on to the stage where, in a few seconds, the Dolls changed clothes and applied their tradtional makeup right in front of the crowd. Once they were the Dolls we were used to seeing, they blasted through the rest of their set.
The rest of the set was sensual, surreal and fun. At one point, and acrobat performed stunts suspended over the crowd, at another point, while Amanda pounded out a frenzied “Girl Anachronism” on the piano, Krin and Jonas danced through the crowd dressed up as injured cheerleaders.
The Dresden Dolls played all of my favorites (with the exception of “The Jeep Song”, but it’s rare to hear every song you want at a show, isn’t it?), and yet their set was over too soon. As the house lights came up and we stumbled off into the cold, I couldn’t help but think I had just witnessed something amazing, and I felt really fortunate to have been there. When you see a lot of concerts, it’s rare to get that feeling (I don’t think I’d felt that way since the New York Dolls reunion), so when a show does that to you, it’s a great feeling.