Thursday, November 04, 2004

Dresden Dolls / Bowery Ballroom / Oct. 29, 2004

Reviewed by Liz Gorinsky

If I'd actually written this review of the Dresden Dolls show the day after it happened, I would have been mightily tempted to precede it with a spoiler warning, because, holy cow, was this show full of surprises.

Due to the fairly interminable parade of opening acts before the Dolls took the stage-- my friends report that I should be sorry to have missed The Ditty Bops, a precious duo that speaks olde-time jazz like they just stepped out of the ‘20s; but I could easily have done without Count Zero (lameoid thrashy pop... the book is way better), the poorly-scripted S&M act, or the overlong intros from our corseted male MC-- I spent a lot of time observing the crowd, which was sparked by the natural eccentricity of the band's fan base and fueled by the show's proximity to Halloween. It had drag queens enacting improv theatre on the waiting crowd; scantily-clad girls and skinny, pretty boys dressed as vintage cigarette-sellers; people in Halloween costumes; and hardened fans sporting specific references to Weimar cabaret fashion or dolled up as... dolls (since I was wearing my own pair of black-and-white-striped thigh-highs, I'd be hard-pressed to pass judgment on any of them). If they were shooting for a carnivale atmosphere, they certainly got one.

None of it, though, was half so much fun as what happened once the Dolls took the stage. As the two-person band slunk on stage covered in a black sheet, the MC explained that Amanda's Halloween dream was to appear before us as the banshee of Celtic legend, setting us up to expect some sort of horror show. But when the lights came up and the sheet was abandoned, Brian and Amanda emerged dressed like Sonny and Cher (!) and proceeded to put all their muster and vibrato into a slightly-updated cover of "I Got You, Babe." As soon as they finished, burlesque music was piped in over the loudspeaker. A cigarette boy and girl wearing very little but body paint came on stage bearing decorated costume boxes and stood by as the Dolls stripped down to nothing but their skivvies, with black electrical tape Xed over their nipples (this is probably the point at which they instantly took the title of Band I Most Want to Have a Threesome With, a category I didn't even know existed until Friday night). Instead of donning their standard garb, though, they put on blonde wigs and matching pink skirts, bras, and berets, and launched into a cover of "Hit Me Baby One More Time," with Brian doing the "Still believe!" refrains in falsetto. Just when I thought they had run out of pop culture references, the PA kicked in with "Like a Prayer," and the two blondes made out for awhile. Then they put on their normal outfits and applied doll makeup, Brian using some lucky bystander's camcorder as a mirror.

This signaled the start of the somewhat more serious business of performing their own songs. They started with a few of the short, catchy songs they've MP3ed on their website, got the audience eating out of their hands, then switched to a run of what I'm tempted to call their "power ballads", if only because of the intense instrumental breaks and Amanda's strident vocals. From the get-go, they demonstrated obvious expertise as performers and theatricality to spare (nifty stage tricks included Amanda's duet with herself on the closing bars of "Half Jack" and Brian's elaborately-choreographed performance as the title character in "Coin-Operated Boy").

There clearly wasn't much risk of anyone getting bored, but that didn't stop the band from working to earn their keep. Like every cultural event I've attended for the past few weeks, the band urged everyone in the audience to get out the vote... except that they did it via a cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." Then, another song of their own, and then... hey, look! Special guests! Big dork that I am, as soon as the first guest walked on stage I thought, "Woah! That's the guy that played accordion for Emilyn Brodsky when she opened up for the MagneticFields!" I found out about a second later that he and his partner-in-crime, dapper Jack Terricloth were actually from The World/Inferno Friendship Society, there to join the Dresden Dolls in a stirring cover of a song from Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera. No hiding from their influences on this stage, no sirree.

That was the band's last trick for the evening. Nothing particularly abnormal happened as they left the stage and then encored with a few slow, powerful songs. Then again, I'm not sure "normal" really applies to the Dresden Dolls. There are critics who dismiss image-conscious bands like this as fluff, but if you can pull off both the highly-stylized imagery and the musical prowess to back it up, why not work it? If it's gestalt the Dolls are going for, they've hit it spot-on.