After a quick photo shoot with the Dresden Dolls prior to their show, it was time to come in for the real deal: the live performance. In their singular brand of “Brechtian punk cabaret,” the Dolls rocked the house in a raucous set that affirmed the duo's status as one of the best live shows around.
Taking the stage in dramatic fashion wearing military-style cloaks and sequined masquerade masks, the two partners in crime assumed their stations and set into a furious energy that persisted throughout the entire performance.
For those unfamiliar with what exactly constitutes “punk cabaret,” let alone that of the Brechtian variety, one need only be introduced to two musicians: Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione. The group's dynamic sound is a product uniquely born from the collaboration that is at times incendiary, cathartic, and whimsical, often all at once.
Seated at her Kurzweil keyboard, one half of the Dolls' sound is defined by Palmer's expressive vocals, which can rage from a whisper to a lion's roar all in the same bar, and reel from agony to ecstasy in as much space.
On the keyboard, Amanda Palmer delivers an animated performance that mirrors her vocal range, attacking the keys like she holds a grudge one moment and then gingerly extracting notes with a childlike fascination at another.
Complimenting her across the stage is Brian Vilgione, who adds a uniquely explosive sound to the group with his charged drum work and the sheer physicality of his playing style. Like his counterpart, the drummer flies from a meticulously controlled pianissimo to a tempestuous assault of percussion, rolling between the two extremes with a deftness that should be both seen and heard.
During the live performance, the Viglione is equally as likely to be seated or standing above his set, mugging all the while with a flare for theatrics fitting of any mime.
On stage, the two performers are in constant conversation, both musically and through persistent eye contact as the songs progress, which adds a highly magnetic and organic appeal to the live shows. The “call and response” structure of many of the songs is one of the most engaging aspects of the live performances, not only for the musical dialogue but the gestural exchanges as well.
The setlist featured a relatively large selection from the Dolls' self-titled album, with almost an equal number of new songs. The 2006 release Yes, Virgina only saw very minor representation by comparison.
Highlights from the performance included the ever-popular “Coin-Operated Boy,” “Missed Me,” “Girl Anachronism,” and a finale with the burlesque duo Gravity Plays Favorites and their namesake song. Viglione's drum solo during “Mandy Goes to Med School” drew a strong crowd reaction as well.
And, like any proper Dresden Dolls show, the set featured a few choice covers: Pink Floyd's “In The Flesh,” Beck's “The Golden Age,” and an epic performance of the Beastie Boys' “Fight for Your Right,” which Amanda introduced as “a Yiddish protest song.” This last song, which drew the biggest crowd sing-along of the night, featured Brian taking over main vocal duties and playing the electric guitar, while Amanda helmed the drums with obvious relish.
In addition, the duo performed one track, “Astronaut,” from Amanda's forthcoming solo album, which the band revealed is being produced by Ben Folds.
From an outstanding tracklist that seamlessly wove in new material with the old, the two tracks I missed were the anthemic “Sing” and “Half Jack.” And for those songs, the Dresden Dolls will simply have to come back.
1. In the Flesh (Pink Floyd cover)
2. Girl Anachronism
3. Missed Me
4. Sex Changes
5. Ultima Esperanza
6. Glass Slipper
7. The Gardener
8. Golden Age (Beck cover)
9. Fight for Your Right to Party (Beastie Boys cover)
10. Coin Operated Boy
11. Sorry Bunch
12. Mandy Goes To Med School
14. Mein Herr
- Nikon D3
This performance marked the Dresden Dolls' return to to the Pageant after two performances at the venue in 2006, once opening for Panic! at the Disco during the Summer and again headlining their own Fall tour. Having covered both dates in 2006, I was excited to photograph the Dolls again with another year of experience, not to mention the Nikon D3.
One thing I love about the Dolls is that they're consistently open and welcoming to photographers. Setting up credentials for this show was an easy task, facilitated by the Dolls' wonderful publicist, Anabel.
For anyone shooting the Dresden Dolls now or in the future, one important fact to note is that because of the band's very open camera policy, they don't always issue photo passes. I know some other photographers who had set up credentials ran into trouble due to the lack of photo passes, since security was only allowing photogs with all access passes into the photo pit. While their cameras were OK in the venue, the floor was absolutely packed and without the proper passes, the shooting options were very limited, especially without a long lens.
In addition, Anabel had mentioned that for some dates on the tour, there had been no photo pit made available, but that it would likely depend on the venue. Since their previous headlining performance at the Pageant had included a pit for photographers, I wasn't too worried, but kept this consideration in mind and packed the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 just in case I had to shoot from the balcony.
Just before checking in with the Dresden Dolls' manager, I overheard her talking with the staff about the pit barricade; the staff assured her that there would be still plenty of interaction between the fans and the band despite the small gap. For anyone shooting this tour or other performances by the Dresden Dolls, you might be out of luck for a pit unless it's the venue's policy to have one, which seems to have been the case with the Pageant.
As a very photo-friendly band, the Dolls granted me an all-access pass for the show and I was able to shoot for the entirety of the performance from anywhere in the house. Still, despite stage access, I found that the pit provided some of the best vantage points for the group.
With Brian and Amanda positioned on opposite sides of the stage, I found that center stage provided a great spot for shooting both performers.This was especially true for shooting Brian stage left, given the setup of his kit, which is relatively open from the front. Shooting from the side provided less clean shots, due to a high cymbal and the position of his mic stand.
Amanda, positioned in her traditional stage right spot, was a little more difficult to photograph due to the position of her mic stand, the arm of which cut across parallel to her keyboard. I found the best shots of Amanda when she was seated came when the singer reeled back slightly from the mic, which incidentally coincided with some of her best facial expressions.
By contrast, photographing Brian was a decidedly different experience, given his relatively open drum kit and flare for the dramatic, both of which made photographing the drummer a blast. In talking to my brother, who also photographed the Dolls recently, we agreed that editing through shots of Brian was much harder.
With any other drummer, the one shot of them standing up from their kit with arms outstretched and screaming across the stage, that would be the one, no question. With Brian, all the shots of him are basically “the one.”
I know, it's a tough position to be in. Credentials to photograph the Dresden Dolls is pretty much like a license to fish with dynamite. It's deciding what to do with the catch afterwards that's the problem.
Lighting for this set was fairly straight forward, with three main lighting schemes: red, blue, and white, with an emphasis on the latter.
During much of the set, deep blue backlighting and dim, white front lighting would dominate many of the songs. This scheme was often punctuated by a slightly cool white light during the most fierce parts of the songs, giving especially dramatic effect to Brian on the drums.
In addition to the standard front and backlighting, two lights positioned behind the two players provided additional accents that combined with water hazers to cast some nice shadows at times.
While the band was seated, I utilized the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 almost exclusively. The range of the lens was nearly ideal for shooting from the pit and gave plenty of framing options for the two players.
When Amanda and Brian were more mobile during the second half of the performance, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 came into play. The extreme wide angle of the latter was especially useful as the pair came to the front of the stage.
There was generally plenty of light, but I shot primarily between ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 for this set, opting to stop down and increase shutter speeds rather than lower the sensitivity.
Had I shot this gig with the Nikon D2x instead, I'm sure I would have shot at ISO with more marginal shutter speeds. Needless to say, the freedom of the clean high ISO performance afforded by the Nikon D3 was very welcome for this show.
In what would have been a luxury with the old camera, I stopped down to between f/3.2 to and f/3.5, and kept shutter speeds at 1/200 and faster.
Again, a big thanks to Amanda and Brian for being such engaging subjects in the promo shoot before the performance, and of course for the fantastic performance itself.
Also, as always, thanks to Anabel for setting for setting everything up. Last but not least, thanks again to Katie Kay for handling the moving target of the shoot and all the stress of the tour with such grace. Katie was instrumental in making everything run smoothly.
It's a pleasure to have such an accessible group and to deal with genuinely great people who treat business more like a conversation with a friend.
To all the photographers out there, you owe it to yourself to catch the Dresden Dolls live, because you'll be hard pressed to find a better pair to photograph. If they're coming to a city near you, do not miss them!
Check out my brother's set of the Dolls' New Year's Eve Performance in NYC:
Dresden Dolls @ Manhattan Center’s Grand Ballroom – 31.12.2007
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