It would be wrong to say you never know what you’re going to get when you go to an Amanda Palmer concert. Truth is that you’re gonna get all kinds of things. You’ll just never know when they’ll come your way or how hard they’ll hit you.
The Boston-based singer-composer-multi-instrumentalist and her current band the Grand Theft Orchestra is playing the Paradise in Boston on Nov. 15-17, where the set lists will include songs from the new album “Theatre Is Evil,” nuggets from Palmer’s days as half of the Dresden Dolls, and a wide range of possibilities concerning cover tunes.
One of the joys of a Palmer show is that she’s all over the place. A visit to YouTube will reveal the breadth of her material and the range of her approach to it. She’s fearless (and very naked ) in the video for the poppy “Want It Back”; she’s raucous and unhinged in “Girl Anachronism”; she’s more than credible at the piano with the Boston Pops for a partial performance of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1; she goes for bawdy cabaret style in “Missed Me.”
Yet she’ll tell you it all comes naturally.
“I’m only comfortable when I’m running around like a mad woman, putting a different hat on every five minutes,” said Palmer by phone from a tour stop in Prague, Czech Republic.
“I am most comfortable at top chaotic circus speed,” she added, referring to her Symphony Hall antics. “I probably could have taken my opportunity at the Pops and say let’s just do the Frank Sinatra songbook, but I think it would’ve felt out of character and boring.”
Palmer has likely never been boring, though it did take her a while to break out of a self-imposed shell when she was growing up in Lexington, Mass., and even into her college years.
“In high school I was doing tons of songwriting and a lot of music listening,” she said. “But I wasn’t quite ready – or the opportunity didn’t present itself – to actually be in a band. I was doing a lot of incubating, alone in my bedroom, working on my keyboard and my four- track, and writing songs on the piano. But I didn’t share it very much.”
When she finally did come out of her room during college, there were small solo shows at art galleries and lofts, where she did original songs, accompanying herself on piano. But she soon started getting ideas about putting together a band, coincidentally around the same time that she met Brian Viglione, who would eventually drum with her in the Dresden Dolls.
Page 2 of 3 - “I was playing my timid little piano shows in and around Boston,” said Palmer. “I was playing at the Cloud Club a lot, and that’s where Brian first saw me play. He approached me and said ‘I’m a drummer, we need to do something together.’ And I said, ‘Funny you should say that, I’m looking to put a band together.’ That was the birth of the Dresden Dolls. We started playing locally, and in the first few years we pretty much had a gig in Boston every month, sometimes every week.”
That was in 2000. The duo played all over New England, thinking nothing of jumping into Palmer’s car every other weekend for a gig in New York or Maine. When they won the WBCN Rumble in 2003, things started to blur. They signed to a record label, they toured in Europe, they were asked to open for Nine Inch Nails.
But by 2008, despite building up a rabid fan base with their combination of theater and rock and punk and a bit of glam, it was time for them to go their separate ways, though there have been brief reunions.
Now Palmer, with her three-piece Grand Theft Orchestra, is doing three nights at the Paradise, where she intends to give it everything she’s got, including some variety.
“I think the shows will be similar, but all a little bit different,” she said. “For two reasons: The band doesn’t want to get bored, and because there are a handful of people out there who have bought tickets for all three shows, we want to make sure they get their money’s worth with some different songs every night.”
Yet when she finds some downtime Palmer has also been known to give back. In 2009, she visited her old stomping grounds, Lexington High School, to work with students on a musical production called “With the Needle that Sings in Her Heart.”
“That was a question of returning directly back to my roots,” she said, obviously happy to talk about it. “One of the most intense artistic educations I got was in the Lexington High School drama department, from Steven Bogart. He created an environment in which a lot of kids, including me, found their artistic voices, and really grew and flourished. Since graduating I kept in constant touch with him, and I would go back to help here and there with productions. But I wanted to do something more, something bigger. So we came up with the idea that I would help collaborate on creating a whole show from scratch. It was wonderful, but actually challenging for me. I figured that I would walk in to my old high school, the totally triumphant returning rock star. But these kids had no clue who I was, and I had to win their respect. That was almost traumatizing, given that I was kind of the alienated weirdo in high school, and all of a sudden I was back there, thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m trying to win the approval of high school kids again, and I’m 34.’ “
Page 3 of 3 - She laughed at that, then continued. “But this time my people skills had evolved, and by the end of that show I really felt connected with all the students. We had created something really powerful. I feel it’s important to return to where you came from and to give back to the sources of energy that fed you. Whether it’s paying homage to musicians who have influenced me or going back and working with my high school director, it all sort of feels like the same full circle mentality.”
Some noise came through over the phone from her Prague dressing room, and suddenly Palmer was jolted back into her world of rock.
“We had a show last night in Berlin,” she said, laughing. “Everything broke. My piano broke, and we had to get a spare. My guitarist’s guitar broke, a girl in the front row got punched by someone who was moshing, and her nose broke. Everything broke. For the encore I grabbed my ukulele and ran to the back of the club and stood on the bar, and I did my Radiohead cover, ‘Creep.’ It was a great gig!”