So I went to see the Dresden Dolls on Wednesday. This wasn't just a gig it was a show. Instead of the usual quiet gap with recorded music between the support acts and the main artist instead they had a selection of other odds and ends going on. I suspect we may even have missed at least one. Anyway, we arrived and the place was in darkness, with some classical music playing loudly. We had a quick wander round and noted a circle marked out on the floor in the middle of the crowd, some red material tied to the ceiling, and a strange sculpture made of bins. Then someone came on and announced the first support.
Conscious Pilot turned out to be pretty good, if you like stuff that lives somewhere in the boundaries between goth and metal sort of stuff. They had drums, a guitarist, a vocalist with optional loud-hailer and a chap with mini-keyboard and lots of knobs to twiddle, and their sound reminded me of *something* I usually class as goth but I couldn't (and still can't) quite put my finger on who. Ernie liked the thrashy bits, I liked the poncy goth bits. They didn't quite look the part though - slightly middle-aged and in jeans and tshirts. And if they looked a bit on the old side to me I dread to think what the 15 year olds who made up most of the audience thought. I found myself thinking they'd go down well at Whitby - they were certainly better than Misty Woods though that's not saying anything.
As they ended out came someone else to announce the next act, whose names I forget, a pair of dancers. The dancing had a poncy name too, but it was obviously some sort of interpretive dance, though what on earth they were trying to portray I really couldn't tell you. Standing on the edge of the circle I had a pretty good view of what was going on, though Ernie had gone in search of a drink for us both and missed it. Basically into the circle on the floor came a woman, dressed in ripped tights, a short flouncy white skirt, and a boob-tube style top made of taped-on binbag material. She started sort of standing just off the middle and looking up in the air while making movements with her arms that looked like she was trying to peel the skin and flesh off them, bringing Lady Macbeth to mind. She continued with vaguely tortured looking movements as she gradually sank into a heap on the floor. In the meantime the other dancer appeared from the edge of the circle, clad only in trousers with his skin dusted pale with talc or similar he had long hair trailing down and completely obscuring his face as he moved at a snail's pace across the ring in a zombie-like fashion - though gliding where you might expect a zombie to lurch. As he reached the other side he lifted his face and began to dribble thick dark blood from his mouth, before raising his hands to his face revealing big curved black claws and clawing away the hair which turned out to be a wig which dropped to the floor. The timing making it seem as if he'd been coming slightly more alive as she died, although she then came back to life. They then both continued to dance (if that's what you can call it) slowly closing on each other as he gradually became more smeared with the blood, and ended up with arms wrapped around each other and her draped across him. They were very very very strange, but kind of fascinating at the same time.
As we clapped Amanda from the Dresden Dolls appeared on the stage, where they were still moving instruments around and generally setting up for the next band. She announced that the next act would be the street performers Bang On! over by the merch stall, that then we'd have some more music, and she'd see us in about an hour. It dawned on us that the strange sculpture was in fact a percussion instrument, and headed over quickly to be near the front of the circle of people watching them perform. It was great fun stuff, with two percussionists of great enthusiasm hitting a variety of things with a huge variety of rhythms and all done with an eye to choreography as well as an ear to the sound. They're obviously very talented as well as full of energy and good at working a crowd, but I was a bit bemused by them selling CDs: I don't think it would be the same without the visual performance.
We were called back to the main stage to listen to DeVotchKa, who seemed to me to be vaguely eastern european folk in style but with a few twists. The bass player alternated between double-bass and a sousaphone with green fairy lights filling the bell, which rather dwarfed her. The violinist also played a banana shaped shaker. And the singer also played acoustic guitar and the theremin of all things, and they were all dressed in a way which brought to mind Cambridge of a much earlier era: a floaty dress and a shabby suit and a tailcoat. I really enjoyed it, and it was definitely just the right style of eccentricism for the rest of the show. Towards the end the drummer picked up a trumpet instead and the Dresden Dolls themselves came on - with Brian taking over the drums while Amanda sang - it was stunning. Strewing roses into the audience she left and let them finish, but somehow they weren't quite as good on their own!
Anyway once they'd finished the compere was back, and so were the dancers from earlier, back in the circle in the crowd. She was now dressed in white bandages with a tangle of white string over the top, and he was wearing nothing but shorts and a black rubber gas mask. I don't know if the dancing made even as little sense as what I'd seen earlier as Owen and I only got flashes through the crowd, and to be honest the novelty had worn off, but we did find a certain amount of amusement in listening to the opinions of the people in front of us - who were very convinced that it definitely wasn't Art. As well as being somewhat rude about some of the people in the audience the far side of the circle. It went on a bit too long really, but as it finished we were told to keep the circle clear and the two long thick ribbons of red material were released to hang free from the ceiling and we were treated to a show from an aerialist, whose name I've since forgotten. If you've not seen this before it starts a bit like rope climbing, but there being two ropes of cloth they can be separated and wound round bits of the body and so on letting the performer do various acrobatic things and let go and pose in mid-air. It's a very elegant sort of circus act, and she was pretty good.
And finally it was time for the Dresden Dolls themselves. I can't help but find myself comparing with the White Stripes, since they manage to get the same incredible amount of depth out of only two performers which is one of the amazing strengths of Jack and Meg, but in this case not only can Brian actually play the drums really well but he also has some personality of his own, and adds more to the show than just a beat. He's still something of a foil for Amanda's incredible voice though, and energetic piano playing. I had been out and bought their second album at lunchtime and listened to it through a couple of times so as to give myself more of an idea of what to expect, but to be honest it wasn't necessary. Most of what they played seemed to come from previous material anyway, although I did recognise a song or two, and I'd have loved it even if I didn't know what they sounded like. Much of the time I just stood and listened (while giving an occasional glare to the teenagers behind us who wanted to talk even through the quiet songs), although I admit to singing along to their impressive cover of Sabbath's War Pigs. They did another cover, which I think they said was T Rex (Ah yes, Cosmic Dancer, they told me on the radio this morning :-), but it was a very pared down one, with them standing quietly on the front of the stage and Brian playing acoustic guitar, really lovely. Amanda gave us a solo in the encore and they had a bunch of teenagers on stage on the next track to self-conciously sing backing vocals, it was rather sweet really. Overall it was just a stunning performance, and despite the impression they've given of being slightly pretentious with goth leanings they actually came across as really nice down-to-earth people too.
It certainly wasn't what I'd been expecting when I booked the tickets on a whim but it made me really glad that I had.