Sunday, May 9, 2010

Being an Off-Roadie

My sister came to tour through Europe. For those of you who I haven't mentioned this to so many times you want to stuff cotton in your ears my sister is Amanda Palmer and she has a job as a rock star. Being the sister of someone whose job it is to be widely adored is a uniquely advantageous position, one that finds most of the lovely trappings without having to do any of the actual work. A fine example of this fact is the past week.

Amanda arrives in Amsterdam for a show in the middle of the European tour exhausted. The ashcloud had grounded her flight in, sadly, Iceland, and then forced upon her several ferries over the North Channel involving many sick bags. She has professed her disgust for the whole event by showing up in a tshirt loudly stating "F*CK THE ASHCLOUD". She is not very shy, my little sister. For her troubles she did, however, command an impressive headline in the Boston Globe which read something like, "Amanda Palmer Late, Still has Twitter Access". I'm still shaking my head.

Holly Gaiman has also arrived from London to work the merch table.
Holly is the daughter of Amanda's fiancee, Neil Gaiman, a very nice man who writes for a living. I have felt very protective towards his daughter ever since I went to rescue her from a date in a London club my sister had auctioned her off on for $750.

The show in Amsterdam is a Wednesday night at the Melkweg, a club found on one of the city's many incredibly narrow streets across from a police station. The driver of the band's van celebrates this setting by smashing into the side of a police car parked on the street and breaking off the mirror. Apparently this happens all the time, and they are all released in time for sound check. The show begins with more of a musical theater act consisting of conjoined twins named Evelyn and Evelyn, the other twin being played by Amanda's sidekick for the tour, Jason Webley. They play a number of instruments with one of each of their hands including the piano, guitar, drums, accordion, and the ever-present ukulele. Even I, with less musical talent than Vanilla Ice, know that this must have taken an enormous amount of practice. A few more wrong notes than usual, but highly impressive nonetheless.

A lovely shadow puppet story explains the background of the twins and involves a murderous physician and a truckload of chickens. It is unfortunately marred by the stage getting the wrong light, which ends up incinerating the eyes of the entire left side of the floor audience. Then Jason and Amanda each play solo acts and that's it. The show has delighted the large number of students from my lab who I have saturated the guest list with, although I pay for it dearly the next day at work by everyone singing the "Chicken Man" song incessantly.

Speaking of the next day, my sister had asked if I would like to get on the van with them and drive to their next show in Hamburg and then onto Berlin for the weekend, where I already had a train ticket booked. I said no, I had to work, be a respectable citizen, excuses that led her to spit out that I needed much more rock and roll in my life. Perhaps she had a point, for I find myself sitting at my desk that day staring at the 98th draft of the paper that I still haven't submitted feeling like the biggest twit. Luckily Europe is famous for low budget airlines that you have never heard of, and within a few minutes I'm happily booked to Amanda's show in Prague the following week on the unfortunately named Wizz Air.

But first Berlin. It's Queensday in Holland as I take leave, much to my delight since this holiday turns the country into the equivalent of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras except even worse because it's raining and everyone is wearing orange. Five hours of pleasant slack jawed window staring later I'm at the Berlin train station. This is another of the brilliant things about Europe, the trains. It's so quick and easy to step on and find yourself in the center of another country before you've even finished your beer in the club car. Of course it helps that I live in a tiny place bordered by three different countries, all of which I can see from my roof, but still. Love a good train ride.

Berlin is a very cool city. It has all of the magnificent grand old buildings that are found in most major European cities, but is also permeated with a more recent and fascinating history that can make the antiquity seem somewhat irrelevant.Our British cousin lives there with his wonderful German wife and kid, who were the gracious hosts of Amanda's birthday party that night. At least a dozen close friends and family members turn up including a guy playing a show that night whose band was subtly named Kill Hannah after his ex-girlfriend.

Amanda celebrates her birthday with true gusto and aplomb, the result of which is the necessity of a large blue bucket being present next to her on the stage the following night. Luckily she doesn't need to use it, but it's close. Watching her cringe and suffer this category five hangover under blistering spotlights and I have never been so glad not to be a rock star. Calling in sick one day just isn't an option. A car in Belfast once ran over and broke several bones in her foot yet she still hobbled on stage that night to do her job, whereas any other sensible person would have been propped up on ten pillows demanding ice cream and another Percocet.

It is therefore no surprise that when we meet up in Prague the next week she announces to me that she's quitting her job (this is something she assures me that she says at the end of every tour). However this time I believe her sentiments are exacerbated by the venue's poster of her, which looks like something you might receive at the deli counter if you ordered melons with Serrano ham. (If you look closely you can see her reflection seething). So I take her out for a nice Czech beer and she calms down.

Prague is a very beautiful city that like many other Eastern European cities maintains an eerie juxtaposition of lavish old empires frozen in time by the Iron Curtain. Like every American in her 20's I backpacked through Prague years ago, and was happy to find that the relative inexpensiveness of the city still held true. However so did the taxi scams, one of which attempted to charge me the equivalent of over €60 for a 3km fare. Only by threatening to call out my hotel concierge (in my experience, the only ones actually concerned about you getting ripped off and having a bad stay) did the driver let me out of the cab for a quarter the fare and not take me to the police station or nearest ATM, as he was threatening. Which leaves me wanting the share the following advice, when in Prague, use the metro.
Now is when it really starts to get fun.

I arrive backstage. Backstage, unless you were with Guns and Roses in the mid 80's, is usually a place best avoided. The crew is either running around cursing under their breath because they've misplaced the hex wrench or can't fit everyone on the guest list or trying locate the one corner of the room that has decent enough wifi to skype their girlfriend and where the hell is their laptop anyway. You do not want to be in their way.

Amanda first has to entertain 3 televised interviews in a row, including Czech MTV. As far as I can tell they all ask the exact same questions, but then again I'm helping myself to the cheese plate and miss most of it. Adrian Stout of the Tiger Lillies shows up, the self professed "World's most foremost Death Oompah band", who I remember as the only band at the Fringe Festival to feature a song about hamster buggery. They are, in short, a band worth getting to know.

As this Prague show is a last minute add-on, they do rock star sets instead of the more theatrical Evelyn and Evelyn, which is fine because it means more rowdy people can be packed in without the chairs lining the floor. Gaba Kulka who's down from Warsaw opens, then Jason plays. To me he's a bit like Tom Waits with a few of Ian Curtis's seizures thrown in. One of those, "I just smoked a pack of Camel straights with a quart of JD and I can't wait to do the same thing after lunch.." voices.
But truly great songs.

Amanda is in fine form, covers Billie Jean, has Adrian on stage to play the musical saw (with a violin bow) to the Tiger Lillies "Flying Robert",
and celebrates her tour manager's birthday with a sparkling cake followed by letting him sing "I Love How You Love Me" to send through youtube back to his boyfriend in Seattle who he still hasn't been able to skype. Then everyone gets on stage for the obligatory drinking song and the tour is over. Not quite, there's a sea of people who want merch (unfortunately the venue's poster sells out first) and various bits of things signed by the band who, despite being utterly knackered, are stand up enough to do it. Backstage Adrian and I use the puppets to celebrate with an impromptu "There Ain't Nobody Here but us Chickens" by Louis Jordan follwed by a hazy late night dinner that involved roast duck and some nice police officers, but I don't really remember.

The next day is drizzly so I take in the lovely Uměleckoprůmyslové Museum, which I think is Czech for "little old gorgeous things that look like a pain to polish". Lunch is at Ariana, a small Afghan restaurant that 13 of us literally crash like downloading every google map at once. It's not so much that there is only one waiter and even fewer people in the kitchen, it's more that said waiter is so starstruck by one of Jason's friends, a Czech celebrity, and more to the point that his hero has brought a pile of books for the boyfriend of the American girl with no eyebrows to sign. I thought the poor guy was going to wet himself, or at least take three hours to get the lunch out and forget my entree (he ended up 2 for 3, at least as far as I know).

Great week.

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