Amanda Palmer @ the State Theatre, 11/19/09

(Photo courtesy Don Whiteside)

Sometime during her Thursday performance at the State Theater, Amanda Palmer joked that, “We’ll see where the fucking spirit takes us, yo.” Her tone was facetious, but the sentiment was true. After opening the night with an enlightening music business Q&A before openers Nervous Cabaret took the stage, Amanda Fucking Palmer (as she’s affectionately known to her fans) embarked on an evening of pure Brechtian punk cabaret brilliance. Whether solo or accompanied by the Nervous Cabaret, playing songs off her solo debut (last year’s Who Killed Amanda Palmer? and crowd-pleasers from the Dresden Dolls catalogue, Amanda Palmer gives the crowd what it wants.

The Nervous Cabaret is a Brooklyn-based band that looks and sounds like they belong in a Bayou blues bar. Their name is misnomer: there is nothing “nervous” about these guys, who are all swagger, in their thrift-store suits and pork pie hats. Bandleader Elyas Khan, somewhere between Lemmy and Johnny Depp, spits and howls without abandon, his vocal runs tinged with Middle Eastern melodies. The band has a keen understanding of dynamics, knowing when a guitar or trumpet riff is enough, and when the entire band should scream like their heads are on fire. They’re also the perfect opening act, hyping the crowd for what for what is sure to be a total bacchanalian affair: what else explains the bassist’s creepy goat mask?

Emerging from the back of the house in a procession resembling either a funeral or a wedding, and decked out like a goth Moulin Rouge performer, Amanda Palmer launched into the dour tale of unrequited (and forbidden) love, “Missed Me,” off the Dresden Dolls eponymous debut. Predictably, the crowd went wild.

While last year’s tour with the Danger Ensemble tended towards performance art, Palmer’s utilization of such a versatile backing band in the form of the Nervous Cabaret pushes the performance into rock show territory. Songs on WKAP that were either stripped down or dropped altogether the last time around benefit from this arrangement, with horns standing in for strings on powerful, rollicking songs like “Astronaut” and “Runs in the Family.”

Fittingly, the band left the stage, as Palmer keyed the intro for “Ampersand,” a song that finds an empowered Palmer soldiering on alone; it’s impossible to not read into the lyrics some of the underlying tensions that led to the dissolution of the Dresden Dolls. After “Ampersand,” it was time for Ask Amanda, where Palmer takes questions from the audience. Palmer is a performer 24/7, and no facet of her life is off-limits or out-of-bound; her engagement with fans, directly and through social networking, serves as a template for other “noncommercial” artists who struggle to push units and stay solvent.

The jazzy swing of “Mandy Goes to Med School” allowed the band introductions to veer into solos by the talented five-piece. Sandwiched between covers of the Ting Tings’ “That’s Not My Name” and the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” was fan-favorite “Coin Operated Boy,” with the lyrics taking the transgressive twist they always do.

A special, DC-metro-area-only treat was Palmer’s duet with her father Jack, doing his best Johnny Cash impersonation, on the haunting Leonard Cohen classic “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong.” For the second encore, Palmer brought the band back on stage for “Oasis,” the tongue-in-cheek, major key ode to date rape, molestation, and abortion. Replacing the bridge with a rousing cover of “Twist and Shout” reminded the audience what they love about this talented performer: she’s hilarious, she’s inappropriate, she’s Amanda Fucking Palmer.

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