Musings on two Things…

4 06 2015

Good morrow, fair readers! Look out, this is a long one – accidentally long, not intentionally long in a vague attempt to make up for not posting for over a year.

Every now and then, my work travels put me in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. In the last couple of weeks this has happened not once, but twice. Cor! There was a certain amount of stress involved, in that my work roster is published a couple of months in advance and is Subject To Change (cue ominous flourishes from the brass section), and that I’d need to do some pretty intensive sucking-up to The Train Gods to make sure I didn’t get delayed on my travels and end up not in the right place at the right time, but I went ahead and bought tickets for Two Things anyway, and much to my hurrahment the shifts in question didn’t change, and The Train Gods were kind.

One shift involved a 3.45am start from London, finishing in Exeter and getting back to a hotel in London about 12 hours later on 28th May.

The other, on 1st June, involved a more sociable 9.15am start in Newcastle, finishing back in Newcastle at 5ish and travelling up to Edinburgh ready for a shift starting at lunchtime the next day

And the Two Things?

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer at Hackney Empire in London on 28th May, and an Amanda Palmer solo gig at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on 1st June

So there I was on 28th May, back in my hotel room in Ealing, installing some serious matchsticks into my eyes and consuming large amounts of a caffeine based liquid before heading off to Hackney to meet one of my oldest and bestest of pals at the hostelry opposite Hackney Empire. This was an excellent added bonus – her work schedule is about as random and unpredictable as mine (actually, more so) so we don’t get the chance to get together very often. Just before 6.30pm we headed across the road, waved our tickets at the tickety people, and entered Hackney Empire.

Ooooh, it’s a grand old place! We were seated in the circle, slap bang in the middle, with an excellent view of the stage (and near the loos, which is always handy, because You Never Know). Much of the hour or so before the show started was spent admiring the ornateness of the theatre, wondering if those two big vaguely egg-shaped things high up either side of the stage opened up to reveal anything exciting* (like extra-special privileged seats, or a naked Neil and Amanda dancing to the Tales of the Unexpected theme tune) and realizing that we hadn’t really needed to go in when the doors opened because we had tickets so could have just arrived a few minutes before the show was due to start (my excitement was probably to blame for that). Also – and I can’t remember why now – we discussed heckling, and decided that shouting “Show us your willie!” to Neil Gaiman when he came on stage would be hilariously funny. In our defence, we’ve known each other since school so there’s always a certain amount of silly schoolgirlness involved when we meet up. And neither of us has really grown up properly yet.

Anyway. The lights dimmed, and look – there’s that brilliant writer bloke and his musical wife! The show nearly didn’t go on when an innocent looking comfy chair on stage turned nasty and tried to swallow Amanda whole, but she’s a fighter and managed to escape. And that turned out for the best, as it meant they got to snuggle up together on the chaise longue, which was rather sweet.

The evening consisted of Neil reading stuff, Amanda playing stuff (on piano and ukulele), them nattering, and some special guests popping in to do stuff too. And it rather felt like we were all just hanging out at their house with their friends popping in to say hi every now and then. It was hugely cosy. Mitch Benn popped in to borrow a cup of sugar and sang a song. Roz Kaveney dropped in twice (once by mistake) to return the lawnmower and read a poem. Hayley Campbell turned up to have a root around in the attic and told a story, and Andrew O’Neill blew in on the wind to borrow a pint of (vegan) milk and made us laugh lots. Finally, because Neil and Amanda are such pleasant hosts, they all came back together for a general natter, and did actions whilst Amanda played her Ukulele Anthem (which even their imminent baby got involved in by causing an acid reflux moment). I wonder if the vibrations of the uke resting on the baby set if off? Will it be born holding a teeny uke? Will it pick one up at a year old and delight its parents with renditions of all Amanda’s songs, learned by heart after having been to so many gigs and having the songs vibrate their way into its musical nodes?

It was a delightful and extraordinary evening, based around the theme of “Saying the Unsayable”, which also happened to be the theme of that month’s issue of The New Statesman which Neil and Amanda had guest-edited. So there were some pretty powerful subjects discussed. Neil’s “Credo” was beautiful and right. Amanda’s performance of “Bigger on the Inside” made our eyes leak. Andrew O’Neill’s timing was spot on (neither of us had heard of him before, but we’ll be keeping our eyes open for him now). Hayley Campbell’s story was delightfully dark and amusing. And hey, guess what – you can read them all in that issue of the New Statesman! But not Amanda songs, because no-one’s worked out yet how to print songs in a magazine so you can hear them properly. And oh, how could I forget! Neil sang a delightfully-dark (I’ve used those words before but I’ll use them again because I can because I’m writing this so there) song about googling, accompanied by Amanda, which was funny and sad and he sounded a bit like Leonard Cohen would sound if he was Neil Gaiman. Which was nice.

So that was about the size of it. A lovely evening, and we both managed to catch our last trains home/hotelward, which was a relief. Oh, and the next day I realized the copy of the New Statesman I bought was signed by them both, so that was a nice little added bonus.

And now I’ll move on to the 1st June, and once again the Train Gods smiled on me and I got to Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh by about 7pm, having had just enough time to change out of my orange hi-visibility railway gear and into something a little less ridiculous and, er, orange. Once inside and after finding my seat, I went to say hello to Claire, who I don’t know. But I do. If you see what I mean. Let me explain. When the tickets went on pre-sale, you had to be with a certain mobile phone network to get them. Handily, I was so I got one. Then I noticed a tweet from Claire asking nicely if anyone could help because she wasn’t with that certain mobile phone network and desperately wanted a ticket before all the good seats went. Seeing as the event was based around Amanda’s book, “The Art of Asking”, there was only one thing I could do when I saw someone ask, which was to help. So I bought a ticket for Claire and posted it to her when it arrived. We had a little natter and a hug (she has gorgeous hair, by the way!), then I settled back into my seat

Oh wait – I forgot something! I had no idea really on the size of the venue, and thought that a seat near the middle on row C might not be too bad. It was actually the second row (row A either didn’t exist, or it was an invisible row for magical fairy folk, or Frodos with their rings on) and if I’d been much closer to the stage I’d have been on it. So that was good!

And oh! Suddenly there was a real live Amanda Palmer, just a few feet away, sporting her baby proudly under her frock, standing at the front of the stage, singing “The Wind That Shakes The Barley” a capella, un-miked and lovelyly

Let me just stop the review a moment and tell you a few reasons why I like Amanda Palmer

1. Her voice. It’s low, rough, sweet, imperfect (I mean that in the nicest possible way. I prefer voices that have a bit of roughness – and oddness – to them). I also like the way it quite often breaks – be it because she giggles, or because of the emotion of the song.

2. Her songs. Just go listen.

3. Her performances. She’s cracking live. You kind of have to be there, although you can get an idea from watching the numerous clips on t’internet. But nothing, NOTHING prepares you for actually seeing her live.

4. She says what she thinks. And does what she thinks. Sometimes, probably, without thinking, which is hugely endearing. Yes, this sometimes gets her into bother, but I admire her all the more for that.

4. Her general disheveledness. And her penchant for big boots and long coats.

There’s more, but that’ll do for starters! And back to the gig…

I hadn’t seen her play piano live before until Hackney, and the couple of songs she did there on it blew me away a bit. Foot-stampingly, delicately, poundingly ecstatic and heartbreakingly sad (I’m talking about her piano playing). So it was a proper treat in Edinburgh to have a whole evening of her piano playing (with some ukulele thrown in). Add a number 5 to the above list – her piano playing. Love it

The gig continued (for nearly three hours), during which she made us laugh lots with inter-song banter, cry to some songs, laugh during others, and generally just love her to bits. Janey Godley appeared for a short comedy interlude, and Amanda’s doula and right-hand-tour-person, Whitney Moses, came on stage and sang two songs with her – the hilarious “Pregnant Women Are Smug” (by Garfunkel and Oates) which was hilarious, and Delilah (the Dresden Dolls one, not the Tom Jones one) which was heartbreakingly beautiful and made even better by their voices being perfectly matched.

Just before the gig, Amanda had worked out a piano arrangement for a new song in her repertoire, the fabulous “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson. If you haven’t heard of him (shame on you!), he’s a stunningly brilliant acoustic guitar player and singer/songwriter. He’s won awards for his guitar playing. He’s Proper good. So translating such incredible, intricate guitar playing to piano – and doing it just before your gig – is no mean feat. And it was a stunning arrangement too. Eeeeeh, she’s a clever lass is that Amanda Palmer

Other covers were by Momus (who I’d never heard of), a delicious, bitter-sweet waltz called “I Want You, But I Don’t Need You”, Kimya Dawson’s “All I Could Do”, and in honour of Morrissey (who she’s supporting in the US in July), The Smiths’ “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”.

Not sure if there was a dry eye in the house when she picked up her ukulele and played her achingly sad yet comforting “Bigger On The Inside”, or a chuckle-free face when she closed the evening with the cannily clockwork “Coin Operated Boy”.

For those interested in what else she played, I could pretend that my memory is amazing, or admit that a fellow concert-goer had the presence of mind to make a note of the set list and tweet it after the gig. Thank you @JP2796, whoever you may be! We were also treated to Astronaut, Ampersand, Vegemite, The Bed Song, Map of Tasmania, The Thing About Things, and a couple of readings from her book, “The Art of Asking”, chosen at random by a member of the audience.

Obviously, I bought a t-shirt. And a pen, which I forgot about until I opened my pencil case on the train on the way home and was confronted by a tiny naked Amanda Palmer, which made me giggle

And then I went back to my hotel.

And now, because I couldn’t go to the book signing in Edinburgh the next day as I was working, I’m on a train to Manchester where she’s doing a signing at Waterstones. Haven’t quite worked out yet how she’ll sign my audiobook, but I’m sure she’ll manage – as I said before, she’s a clever lass is that Amanda Palmer.
* They didn’t. Which was a bit of a shame.