McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, Portland, OR

Amanda Palmer’s tour for her gorgeous and dense There Will Be No Intermission is less of a concert than a one-woman show. It’s Palmer, alone with a piano (and ukulele, but just for “Bigger on the Inside”), playing songs threaded together with expansive storytelling, about a number of truly intimate subjects, the most prominent being abortion—a topic all-too present in the American consciousness right now. Though she played just 13 songs, the performance lasted a staggering four-and-a-half hours—the longest show I’ve ever seen.

The first seated performance I’ve seen at the Ballroom was an exercise in how to handle extreme exposure to discomfort. It began with the light: the Crystal Ballroom is lined with windows, and a 7pm start time meant that sunlight poured into the room even with the curtains. “I’ve never done this show in sunlight before, and it’s really messing me up,” she joked as she walked onstage. She wasn’t kidding—after Who Killed Amanda Palmer? track “Astronaut (A Short History of Nearly Nothing),” which, allegedly, was birthed in the Ballroom’s green room, she realized the sunlight meant that she could see virtually every face in the audience, stripping away the protective shroud of darkness that makes the show’s drastic emotional honesty easier. Palmer is one of music’s most charismatic performers, but in the evening sunlight, she seemed rattled.

So, she tried to get comfortable. She ended up delivering her stories standing at the edge of the stage, after a trial-and-error period; sitting on the edge of the stage meant being able to stare directly into people’s faces, and walking into the audience meant her back was to others. She joked about it as she got more relaxed. At one point, she asked for the fans to be turned off, saying that the stage was “too sunny and windy,” and later knelt down in a sunbeam during a story about Dresden Dolls: “The sun is hitting me as I invoke the name of the Dresden Dolls!” she shouted triumphantly to cheers—but I felt genuine concern for her for the whole first hour.

What did she talk about for all that time? She told stories about her life, which presented a constant roller coaster of grief—stories of sexual assault, abortions (of which she has had three), miscarriage and (by my count) five deaths abounded, each discussed in painful detail. Throughout, she performed a loose song cycle made up of her various attempts in her long struggle to write a truly great song about abortion, such as the rollicking “Oasis” and Intermission’s “Voicemail For Jill,” each lovingly deconstructed to examine their flaws and strengths. She delved into various controversies she’s faced over the years, though these lacked the same weight as the rest. Despite how much it clearly pained her to tell some of these stories, she was able to make light as often as she could, constantly self-aware and self-deprecating. Halfway through, she offered to play the piano intro of “Coin-Operated Boy” as a palate cleanser for anyone who shouted, “Amanda, I’m too sad!” As she told stories about searching the Boston music message boards for people insulting early Dresden Dolls performances (“That’s how you knew how masochistic I was—I had to hunt this down!”) and detailed the deplorable conditions of a Midtown abortion clinic, it was abundantly clear that her “Massive Art Weirdo” persona is no act. That’s just who she was always going to be.

Palmer is a person who visibly wrestles with her emotions when performing, and watching her struggle with how best to engage in this room at the beginning was a sample of that. Early on, mid-story, she told us, “I’m not going to finish this story—you’ll have to wait until it’s darker to hear the end.” Other times, though, she had the calm of a saint; with maybe half an hour to go, as she talked about the question of “What you’d tell someone about to have an abortion?” that she posed to her Patreon patrons, a ‘90s Dance Night started downstairs. That’s not a joke. She made just one comment about it, but closed with the extra melancholy “The Ride” with the bass of “Lovefool,” “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” and “Say You’ll Be There” shaking the floor, loud enough for her audience to hear the lyrics. This could’ve ruined the performance, but for a show built on overwhelming discomfort, the tension created by this felt like part of, well, the ride.

In between the stories, we did get some songs, which despite being the glue that bound the show together almost became an afterthought. Her songs made up just 83 minutes, a mere quarter of the show’s runtime. Her work was stripped down to just her impassioned piano playing, her voice was beautiful and her performance was one of the better uses of the Ballroom I’ve seen in ages The crowd got rowdy for “Coin-Operated Boy” and a pair of Disney songs (“Part of Your World” and “Let it Go,” the presence of each too convoluted to explain), but otherwise granted near-perfect silence to every song, letting her roll through Intermission songs like “Judy Blume” and “A Mother’s Confession” (the latter of which saw Evelyn Evelyn cohort Jason Webley taking the stage with his accordion near the end) with the attention they deserve.

I could talk for hours about everything contained within the show—four-and-a-half hours is a lot of time, after all. It was dense, heartfelt, shocking, hilarious, and thoroughly arresting. To say that I cried is an understatement. I felt shaken as I left the room. I wasn’t the only one; I comforted the woman next to me at one point as she quietly sobbed. Frankly, the whole experience was rich enough that attempting to capture it is anxiety-inducing. Palmer ended the show by apologizing to anyone who would be in the audience the following night (“I’m so sorry! It’s gonna be weirder!”), but no matter how much it wore me down, I’d have gone again if I could have.

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