The Gig: Evelyn Evelyn (Amanda Palmer & Jason Webley) w/ Sxip Shirey opening
Where: Theatre Corona, Montréal, QC
When: 5 June 2010
In One Word: Vaudevillian
So many surprises in this show – flying blind into the night where the bands have previously been filed under “heard-of, as yet unheard” can really go so many ways, but Saturday’s show proved to be well worth the gamble. In this travelling caravan are three different performers playing four different acts – opener Sxip Shirey, also Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley, both performing solo and together as the conjoined twins Evelyn Evelyn, in a throwback to ye olden travelling carnival days of freakshows and three-ring performances of the weird.
You know those kid’s toys that make the kinds and amounts of noise that make it seem like they were designed to drive new parents insane? I’m the aunt that always gives those as presents, and apparently Sxip Shirey collects those, and makes some incredible music with them. As the evening’s opener, Shirey’s performance was one of the most impressive one-man-band acts I’ve seen – bells, harmonicas, mutant penny whistles, shakers, more bells, and a marble swirled around a glass bowl all get tossed in the mix and churned out through a pitch shifter with its assorted distortions. The result is a madhouse beatbox, a kaleidoscopic circus played through a wind tunnel mixing together the children’s toys with bird whistles, hip hop beats and arcane randomness that is definitely worth checking out should it traipse through your town one quiet night. (The multi-talented Shirey peformed not only as the opening act but as ring- and puppet-master throughout the night, staging two different shadow puppet plays depicting the twins’ lives while they narrated.)
By the time Shirey ended his set, this was already one of the most interesting shows I’ve caught in a long time, and I hadn’t actually even heard Amanda Palmer’s latest incarnation until Saturday’s show, familiar with her work as one half of The Dresden Dolls as I was. The story of Evelyn Evelyn is that of conjoined twins whose tragic entry into this world set the stage for many bizarre events to follow – from unorthodox separation attempts to being raised in a chicken coop to their eventual “discovery” on MySpace. From there, the twins are promoted (and played) by Palmer and Webley in the travelling show that stopped by Montréal’s gorgeous Corona Theatre, and a better venue I could not imagine – vintage theatre architecture at its best.
I’d first heard references to EE, and then there was the infamous piece on Jezebel slamming Palmer’s use (“appropriation”) of conjoined twin personas as “exploitative.” Giving truth to the adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, I wanted to check it out myself – who would actually put to print an opinion about music that they’d never listened to, I wondered? Lots of people, as it turns out.
Contrary to previous charges laid, it’s hard to find any genuine tones of exploitation; what I found instead was simple storytelling, compellingly executed. Yeah, the twin’s backstory is over-the-top, pulp fiction fare – but the spectacle is paired with genuine emotion that cuts without cloying, which was the biggest surprise for me. Webley and Palmer play the twins with a shuffling awkwardness that lends the twins a timid kind of pluck that any high school nerd would understand; it’s the shared humanity that keeps the whole plot from being a joke on the twins.
After Sxip Shirey’s Technicolor one-man-canned-circus opening act, the haunting opener “Evelyn Evelyn” wound down the mood abruptly, in a confession of love and resentful proximity that disappeared as quickly as it came, soon laughed away by the punny slapstick of “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?” and “You Only Want Me Because You Want My Sister.” The awkwardness of being conjoined twins is played for laughs in a self-deprecating way; no punches pulled and no pun left unplayed – which is what makes the show so effective, and draws the line between exploitation and artful exploration. Nothing is taken too seriously, and the whole act would have failed if it were; it is neither the advocacy that the “critics and hipsters” seem to think it should be nor the ‘cripface’ that they accuse it of being.
While the characters of the twins plead to be judged on their own merits and not merely superficially, the same appeal could be applied to the act itself. There are songs of loss and loneliness, love, sisterhood and identity that could have been sung by almost anyone; why these songs chose conjoined twins as their narrators is a question for the creators. But then again, why not? Oscar Wilde noted that art is neither moral nor immoral, but rather either well or poorly executed, with the artwork showing merely a reflection of those that choose to view it. The old variety shows, as a populist form of entertainment, embody this no differently than other mediums.
After the twins’ set ends with a stark cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – again with the conjoined twin puns – on the ukulele, Jason Webley performed a short set of accordion dirges both melancholy and hypnotic, that had edges of Tom Waits but a style all his own. The merch table was too crowded by the time I made my way there after the show, so I’ll have to get a Webley fix online. Amanda Palmer then played solo the rest of the night, performing songs from her Dresden Dolls days, (“Missed Me”) her solo work, (“Astronaut,” as well as the cumbersomely-titled – but my utter favourite from the evening – “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help your black ass?”, the title being taken from an NWA lyric) as well as a stark cover of Radiohead’s “High and Dry” on the piano. The evening closed with a theatre-wide drinking song sing-a-long that brought everyone to their feet, spinning around with their fingers in the air, dizzy and drunk. Quite frankly, between Evelyn Evelyn’s carnival spectacle here and the performance I caught earlier this year by Puscifer, if we’re in for a revival of Vaudeville-style shows combining music with theatre and comedy, then I’m all for it.
© Liz Keith, Music Vice
Pictures of Evelyn Evelyn (Amanda Palmer & Jason Webley) at Theatre Corona, Montreal