Written by Samuel Barker
Mar 21, 2009 at 10:00 PM
ImageMy favorite part of Austin’s SXSW is living in Houston. I’m safely out of range of all the insanity and label executive back-patting going down, but I’m close enough to see plenty of great shows as they trickle down 290. A lot of these artists skip over Houston on their normal tours or this entire region.

One of these rarely in the state artists is Amanda Palmer. In the lifespan of her band, The Dresden Dolls, only 3 proper shows were played here in Houston. She’s a fixture overseas and on the east coast, but that southern trek is a rare one. That is why when her show at the Golden Peacock Room of the House of Blues popped up, we were on it.

Sure, it has only been a little over 9 months since her and fellow Dresden Doll Brian Viglione graced the stage at Warehouse Live, but it was over 5 years since they’d been here before, so you go when you can. And we thank SXSW for a fine gift of getting Ms. Palmer in the region and dropping her at our doorstep for a great night.

Did I give away the surprise by saying it was a great night? Well, it was…and not for the reasons I expected it to be.

Palmer’s set was a wonderful mix of songs from her solo albums and from her Dresden Dolls catalogue. The best surprise was the number of songs from the first Dresden Dolls album. The solo shows gave her a chance to touch on the more quiet and subdued of the Dresden Dolls catalogue. The treat was that we got to see these songs in their initial stage. Being the sole songwriter for the Dresden Dolls, you got to see these songs in the way Palmer created them.

The set was not without faults, though. Overseas touring and a hectic SXSW schedule left Palmer pretty frayed mentally. Her performance was excellent, when she performed, but there was a sense of complete mental confusion between songs, much of it aided by a few audience members who screamed over her everytime she tried to talk. She took requests that would get lost in 200 voices screaming out different song titles, therefore making the decision difficult.

While these stalls took away from the fluidity of the set, it made it feel much more intimate. Sure, a few audience members gave you the desire to backhand them, but the casual nature of the show made it feel like hanging with a friend playing you some of her songs. Palmer was great by giving in and just going with it. She did a lengthy Q&A with the audience, she carried on conversations with people and took her time. She didn’t give any less music, either. In the two hours she was on stage, she played at least 90 minutes of music.

The best illustration of the night to Palmer’s caring nature towards her audience was after the first song, Astronaut, when it became clear most of the audience couldn’t see her when she was seated. She had two people in the front row help her lift her keyboard and played the rest of the set standing. Not many people would take the time and effort, let alone the discomfort, to make sure everyone could see.

However, for me, Amanda Palmer was just the icing on the cake. I was unaware of an opening act and somewhat bummed to see one would be performing. I know, more music, the better. But I was ready for the main event, so the opener, Vermillion Lies, was walking on stage with a negative mark against them. Surely they weren’t worth waiting another hour to see Palmer, right?

Wrong. Vermillion Lies was the best surprise I’ve received in 10 years of covering concerts. Two sisters, Zoe and Kim Boekbinder, make up the band and presented some of the funniest, most brilliantly played music I’ve had the privilege to witness.

They had the cabaret sound, they had the 40s ballad sound, they had the folksy ballads and they had circus. It was all there and amazingly performed by these two striking young ladies and their array of instruments. Their instruments started off with the typical: piano, guitar, kick drum. Then, it went into the realm of creation: typewriting, plastic lobster, puppet, gas can, etc.

All of their instruments were carried in a large case, much like an old travelling salesman would carry, and led to the between song question of “What’s in the box?!?” That has become the group’s motto, of sorts.

From the opening of “Grandfather,” a whimsical sounding acapella song about asking their mother about dissecting their soon to be deceased grandfather, the scene was set. A 1-2 punch from their newest 7″ record for New Orleans (released by a label out of Houston, no less) of “Miss Orleans” and “Bonnie and Clyde” had me hooked. Zoe Boekbinder’s voice was absolutely amazing, she sounded like a 40s nightclub singer in top form.

The set ended with a rousing rendition of their song “Global Warming,” which had the audience singing along and laughing. The song showcased their witty humorous takes on the world, their singing ability, amazing harmonizing and their ability to captivate the audience all at once.

I know, I’m gushing a bit over this band, but they were that good. So good that I bought their new 7″ and stood in line to get it signed. For me, that’s REALLY good.