see all the photos from this concert here

Dresden Dolls
Noblesse Oblige
Custard Factory Theatre, Birmingham
Thursday December 9 2004
~review and photos by Uncle Nemesis

That’s right: tonight’s venue really is called the Custard Factory, for the simple reason that back in the days when Birmingham was the custard manufacturing capital of Britain, this 19th century industrial building was where the yellow goo spewed forth by the gallon. Today, the Custard Factory has been re-invented for the post-industrial age, and transformed into a designer arts centre, a network of shops and performance spaces where all manner of strange entertainment can take place.

Tonight’s strange entertainment comes from the Dresden Dolls, who don’t come from Dresden, but from Boston, a city in the top-right corner of the USA. I recall, on my travels through Boston back in 2001, picking up a scrappy local punkzine from Newbury Comics, and reading what must have been one of the band’s first pieces of press. Now this looks interesting, I mused: a two-piece, costumed as if they’d just escaped from a travelling carny circa 1920, performing, in their own words, ‘Brechtian punk cabaret’ with just piano, drums, and voice. I resolved there and then that I would have to see this band. Well, two years and several thousand miles later, I’m finally able to do just that.

The Dresden Dolls have come a long way themselves in those two years - from a quirky Boston alt-scene phenomenon to their present status of superstar contenders, only one push away from the big time. Now, you might think I’m exaggerating here. After all, tonight’s venue is small and not especially well-equipped. The band clearly haven’t hit the big time just yet. But consider this. Tonight’s show is promoted by Clear Channel, pretty much the biggest corporate player in music these days, and is just one stop on a massive tour, a trans-global escapade which has already covered the USA, large chunks of Continental Europe, and heads out to New Zealand immediately after this gig. The band are travelling in their own nightliner bus with their own crew and all the trimmings. Plus they’re picking up radio play and MTV interest, which, in these corporate-controlled times, just doesn’t happen unless somebody with big-league resources is getting busy with the plugging and the PR. Conclusion: someone’s putting major money behind the Dresden Dolls. And that someone is going to want a return on their investment before too long. The Dresden Dolls are doing well, that’s for sure. But the pressure’s on. It’s big-time or bust.

Before the Dresden Dolls themselves arrive on stage, we have a support band. Noblesse Oblige are a cabaret duo themselves, of sorts. At any rate, they’re certainly not your usual rock ‘n’ roll outfit. A boy, a girl, a bass guitar, a backing track and a selection of intense, punky, songs-cum-performance art pieces, most of which involve dramatic gestures, mock-fights, simulated sex, and confrontational stances in front of the audience. But the confrontation stops short at the lip of the stage.  Noblesse Oblige are all about the performance: they don’t really want to challenge anyone to a bout of fisticuffs.

Nevertheless, Noblesse Oblige still manage to be suitably manic and scary, and the bass guitar has a nice, gritty, distorted sound. The male half of the band hollers and yells out vocals about who knows what, staring bug-eyed at the audience as if it’s all our fault. On one song he bashes himself on the head at strategic intervals with the microphone to create a percussive effect - aha, art in action! Some of the lyrics are in German, presumably for that decadent cabaret in Berlin atmosphere, although a girl from Austria who happens to be in the audience isn’t impressed: the German-language stuff is ‘mostly nonsense’, apparently. Still, it has the right kind of feel. The female half of Noblesse Oblige is by far the better singer, and when she steps up to the mic the band reveals an unexpected pop sensibility. Lurking behind all the writhing and screeching and performance-art antagonism, Noblesse Oblige actually have some rather neat songs, which feature structure and hooks and all that ‘songwriting’ stuff.  This is the element that helps the band rise above the level of simply being art-fetish hoodlums, entertaining though they are in this respect.  Somewhere underneath all the conceptual weirdness, there’s a pop group struggling to get out.

And now, the main event. And a surprise: for all their quirky cabaret schtick, the Dresden Dolls are a reassuringly ordinary couple. They’re chatty and engaging, greeting the audience in down-to-earth tones and generally coming across like two normal people up for a bit of zany fun.  Even their names - Brian and Amanda - sound so blandly everyday they could almost be characters in Abigail’s Party. I must admit I wasn’t expecting this. I had assumed, from the band’s artfully surreal publicity photos, and their erudite references to Weimar era cabaret and what-not, that the Dresden Dolls would be an all-encompassing concept, with the musicians remaining in character throughout the show, and putting on a structured, scripted, piece of surrealist musical theatre. In short, I was expecting Boston’s answer to the Tiger Lillies. But that, as it turns out, is not quite what the Dresden Dolls do. For all the unusual line-up, the carefully-constructed image, and the recondite influences, the Dresden Dolls are, underneath it all, a rock band, and they’re simply here to rock.

So, they get stuck in. Amanda plunges into her keyboard as if jumping into a swimming pool. I’m amused to note that she’s changed the manufacturer’s name on the back of the instrument from Kurzweil to Kurt Weill, although any influence of the bleakly rhythmic low life-isms of Weill’s music is not, it must be said, particularly apparent in the Dresden Dolls’ own tunes. It’s all too fast and furious for that. Amanda hammers manically away, writhing around on her piano stool as if goosed by the ghost of Elton John. She sings in a full-throated holler, every song a geyser of emotion and angst. It all gets a bit Andrew Lloyd Webber at times, especially on the big, over-emotional ballads which seem to be a Dresden Dolls speciality. All those climactic keyboard runs, and that high-drama vocal - it’s as if she’s trying to make up for the fact that she’s stuck behind a keyboard towards the back of the stage, and thus can’t front the band in the traditional way, by injecting sheer force into her vocals. All of which is impressive enough in itself, although, again, I’m not sure how this tour de force of rampant diva freaking is supposed to dovetail with the band’s supposed ‘Brechtian’ ethic. Frankly, Amanda comes across as more Mama Cass than Mother Courage.

Meanwhile, Brian-on-the-drums flails and batters at his kit as if powering a band of heavy metal megastars to Enormodome glory, the sheer force of his playing entirely unmoderated by the fact that this is a small venue and the audience is barely a drumstick’s length away. The acoustic sound coming off the kit is so loud, in fact, that it rather swamps the amplified sound and smothers the soundmix in a maelstrom of crashing and walloping. Brian, it seems, has two playing styles: loud, and even louder. He’s the only drummer I’ve ever seen who can conjure hefty thuds and rifle-shot cracks out of his kit even when he’s using brushes. Sometimes, this hit ‘em hard approach is appropriate, as on the cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’ - a number with which the Dresden Dolls sound revealingly comfortable as they pile in to the song like the closet rockers I suspect they are. But other songs, particularly the band’s own more wistful, melancholy numbers, demand a certain restraint, a touch of subtlety, which we don’t really get tonight.  Subtlety tends to go by the board when you’ve got a manic Mrs Mills thumpin’ and hollerin’ at the keyboard, and an overdriven Cozy Powell flailing away right in front of your face.

All this means that the Dresden Dolls live experience is a bit like being mown down by an armoured personnel carrier. It’s all such a frantic rush and blatter that the songs tend to blur into each other, although there are a number of diehard fans in the audience (including a few Amanda lookalikes) who clearly know the material well enough to pick out - and cheer for - individual faves. ‘Coin Operated Boy’ gets a good reaction, but it’s ‘Girl, Anachronism’ - that jerky, pounding, anthem to freaked-out-ness - that gets the biggest cheer, especially from the Amanda lookalikes, who doubtless think they’re all girl anachronisms themselves. In a rare break from all the pounding and hollering an acoustic guitar makes an appearance, Amanda comes forward, and the Dolls give us a swift and incongruously hearty run-through of Jacques Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’. As it happens, this is one of my favourite songs, so I’m happy to hear it, although I note with alarm that the band have given Brel’s austere lament a typical Dresden Dolls Big Emotional Showstopper make-over. Amanda belts out the lyrics with such gusto that when she gets to the line ‘Who’ve given their bodies to a thousand other men’ - which surely should be sung with a bleak, washed-out melancholy - I half expect her to nudge Brian with her elbow and interject a cheery ‘Hubba-hubba!’

So, the Dresden Dolls were not what I was expecting. I thought I was going to get - well, what it says on the tin: Brechtian punk cabaret. Instead, I found myself steamrollered by a rampaging rock band, their essential rock-ness entirely unaffected by the fact that the Dolls don’t have the usual rock line-up. Occasionally, when they take things down a bit and allow some subtlety to come though, there are moments when it’s possible to see what the Dresden Dolls could be, moments when a small glimmer of that much-vaunted Weimar Berlin influence peeks through, only to be knocked flat as the rock machine powers up once more. I suppose I should’ve expected this: after all, the fact that the likes of Clear Channel and MTV are taking an interest in the Dresden Dolls indicates the essential mainstream rock-scene compatibility of the band. By their music industry partners ye shall know them. I wish the Dresden Dolls well, as they scrabble up the ladder of rock scene success, but will I be a regular customer at this cabaret? Put it this way: don’t keep my table waiting.

see all the photos from this concert here

Dresden Dolls:

Noblesse Oblige:

Kurt Weill:

Bertolt Brecht:

Mrs Mills:

Cozy Powell:

Abigail's Party:

Clear Channel:

The Custard Factory:

The Custard:

Reviewed by Uncle Nemesis: