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Review: Amanda Palmer - Old Songs, New Songs, New Zealand Survival Songs at Hamer Hall

Review by Susanne Dahn

Amanda Palmer - New York based composer, musician, performance artist, who quite likes to be known as Amanda Fucking Palmer - finished her brief “Catch Up Down Under” tour this week at Hamer Hall in Melbourne. 

I last saw AFP in Melbourne in March 2020 when she was still performing with (and married to English writer Neil Gaiman) in their memorable show called There Will Be No Intermission

It was their last night in Australia prior to the final 4 show NZ leg of the 80 show tour and then home to New York. Except that’s not what happened. 

Instead Covid happened and Amanda stayed in En Zed/Aotearoa for some two and a half years, with their then four year old son Ash, first in Havelock North and then on tiny Waiheke Island. Husband Neil somehow escaped both from New Zealand and from the marriage. 

New Zealand, which has now granted them permanent residency, has had a big impact on Amanda and her son. As her best friend Anthony was wont to say everything breaks.

And much did break for Amanda and Ash on that untethered island. It was a time of fear, loneliness, loss, despair and endings. But there were also beginnings, hope and love.  And the connections with place, people and story for Amanda will be enduring. 

It was also a creative time.  To combat chronic 3am panic attacks, Amanda began to write songs in her head to which she later added the music. These songs weren’t written to entertain or instruct, they were written to survive and stay sane. To learn from the dark and emerge into the light. Amanda has now recorded some of those songs on a new EP called New Zealand Survival Songs and this tour was centred around them.

The songs hold and tell Amanda’s stories in a new way with new purpose. They are part of an extended exploration of home-defining, home-coming and healing that she has been working through. We are witness to a creative curing to see what songs can fix. As it turns out, they seem to fix quite a lot and Amanda is in pretty good shape at the end of this short but cathartic tour. 

And as always with this fiercely independent artist we, her audience, her chosen Whānau family get to share in the gift of her prodigious musical skills, her unique and powerful voice and the breadth of her creative friendships. 

The audience greets Amanda with huge warmth as she enters Hamer Hall strumming her ukulele to In My Mind and singing I’m now exactly the person I want to be. Now that we know that Amanda is okay, even though there’s some new tough songs coming, she can tell us we are okay too. The warmth and humour of Australia and Vegemite are both great crowd pleasers. 

Then come the two prophetic ukulele tunes New Zealand, New Zealand and Hello, Aotearoa which eerily foretell the long lockdown Amanda and Ash are about to endure. 

The first actual New Zealand survival song The Man Who Ate Too Much is profoundly angry and sad about the end of the marriage, about the lies and the greed, the house where the post won’t deliver, the now pointlessness of the prenatal vitamins and about the saving love of the local people and the power of the Māori myth of nearby Te Mata peak. 

Then comes The Ballad of the New York Times about doom scrolling on the paper’s phone app, the poignant lament of not understanding which part of me is fine while the Covid death count is accelerating, the shaking panic attacks coming again and again and nothing making any sense anymore. 

There is an intermission of sorts with friend Kya’s daughter dancing an accompaniment to Amanda on piano playing and singing her amazing Drowning in the Sound. Then a ukekele version of Paul Kelly’s I Can’t Believe We Were Married. And, to the lighten the mood, the magical Weimar-inspired Palmer classic Coin Operated Boy.

Palmer describes the third of the four core New Zealand survival songs Whakanewa as a howl from the spirit. Inspired by the nature reserve on Waiheke Island, it is a container for her rage at Neil the world is shaped to have your back, you said I’m sorry and then you ran. The torment and waste and betrayal in this leavetaking from a marriage are devastating and the song may rarely or never be performed again.  As Amanda said just get this off me

There is one more new song, a Dresden Dolls song, a lighter reflection on love and compatibility, but with the punch that it’s not nothing to be very good at loving. Yes, it is not nothing at all. 

Finally we have Little Island the love song to New Zealand, with friends Clare Bowditch and Tom Dickins supporting on vocals. This anthem about how important New Zealand has been for Amanda Oh how I owe you little island will, I’m guessing, definitely be played again. 

Palmer, who rarely used to wear any jewellery, counts the pounamu (the cold NZ greenstone she now often drapes on her warm neck) as one of her most cherished possessions. It helps her remember what she went through and who helped her. 

She enjoys explaining to Americans that a pounamu shouldn’t really be purchased for yourself; that their power comes when they are received as a gift of love. 

An Amanda Palmer performance can feel like a pounamu gift to her fans who know how good she is at loving. 

While there isn’t now another chance to see this particular show, there is without doubt an unbreakable thread between Amanda and this part of the world. She’ll be back soon. Kia ora Amanda Palmer. 

Image Supplied


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