3 Mar 2017
A planned garden city
Canberra has many architecturally interesting buildings. Parliament House, built into Capital Hill, is perhaps the most obvious, but there are others, from the beautiful “Prairie Style” buildings of early Canberra, through the “English Cottage Vernacular” of my own house, to post-modern “Living Skyscrapers”.
One gem of a building is the National Carillon, an elegant bell tower given to Australia as a gift by the United Kingdom to mark the 200th anniversary of Captain Cook’s charting of the east coast.
It sits on Aspen Island in Lake Burley Griffin, a pure white spire of a complex triangular section. Popular for picnics, weddings, or just romping around with toddlers chasing ducks, this little bit of Canberra is one of my favourite places. We used to live a few blocks away, and we’d often go walking the dog there on a sunny afternoon.
Finding a legend
Let me take you, for a moment, to Springfield Illinois, on my big Route 66 adventure in 2011. My mate Jay is good at finding music to enliven road trips, and she plugged a singer by the unlikely name of Amanda F*ucking Palmer into the MP3 input. Her album “Amanda Palmer Goes Down Under” tickled my funny bone and pretty much set the scene for the rest of the trip.
The song “Map of Tasmania” had me in stitches. For weeks, well years, afterwards, I couldn’t help collapsing into laughter at the sound of the song’s tagline, “Oh. My. God.” – to which Jay would respond with the next line, unprintable here on this family values blog.
Amanda Palmer turns out to be married to author Neil Gaiman, and we listened to his “The Graveyard Book” on audio as Illinois turned into Missouri. A match of creative spirits and Jay is a firm fan of both. As am I, now.
Amanda Palmer tours Australia and New Zealand on a regular basis, and her somewhat unconventional, free-wheeling style draws a dedicated fanbase of similar souls. She likes drawing outside the lines, and in 2011 – only weeks before before Jay discovered her to me – she performed a “ninja gig” at the Carillon, playing ukelele and piano in the tiny space enclosed by the walls during a massive thunderstorm.
A night to remember, by all accounts. As a taxi driver, I dropped off an audience member, someone who was in the know through Amanda’s Twitter feed. I went home and had a cup of coffee, while Amanda Palmer played up a storm to a damp audience. If only I’d known. I would have stayed and listened and got wet.
The Ninja Gig
Not this time. Friday night, and I was on hand. Some fans were waiting on the lawn, drinking wine, chasing toddlers around the island, chilling out. I snapped a few photos and kept an eye on Twitter and the lakeside path.
Amanda arrived with an escort of bicyclists. Not just any bikes; there were double-decker bikes, bikes with four wheels – and a sound and lighting system – long bikes, tiny bikes, tall bikes. This was Canberra’s “Rat Patrol“, and they were staunch fans of Amanda Palmer. And she of them.
Amanda’s supporting act, the all-female “Glitoris” group, bounded up onto a bench and began belting out some raunchy tunes. Reputed to perform wearing nothing but gold glitter, I noted with mixed feelings that tonight they were fully clad.
Regardless of dress, they performed with vigour and enthusiasm, but by the time Amanda was ready to join them, there were mutterings of “déja vu” all around, as the skies darkened and rain began to spatter down.
Amanda, Glitoris, the mobile lighting system, several bicycles and a hundred fans squeezed themselves into the few square metres – triangular metres, rather – between the columns. Some rain and wind blew through the gaps, but things stayed moderately dry.
The centre of the space is marked by a plaque where Queen Elizabeth II dedicated the Carillon in 1970. Now it marked the edge of the performance space for five women who weren’t holding back on their language or their music.
The audience loved it. They knew the words, they roared their approval, they bounced and swayed. I took photos as best I could in the circumstances, but I had a bike at my back and a giant in front who was bent on recording the entire evening on his iPhone.
I suspect that some in the crowd had had a few drinks – or similar – to help them through the evening, and when one kind soul offered a bottle to Amanda, she lit up.
The whole performance lasted three hours, plus or minus. Songs from her albums – including the rollicking Map of Tasmania – poignant songs, happy songs, ukulele songs, and songs requested by the audience.
An amazing performer, really. Her semi-autobiographical “The Art of Asking” sums up her philosophy. She doesn’t need a commercial machine to run her performances. Instead, she asks the fans to help out, and they come through for her with gusto. They cheerfully fund her a few dollars at a time – as do I – provide accommodation, food, drink, transport, technical assistance, and smiles enough for all to fly.
But, although she said she’d rather stay on, sign things, pose for selfies, and get drunk, she had a tired toddler to look after and a real commercial show the following night. Sold out, of course.
She hoisted her ukulele, bowed to the crowd, and the thing was over. Until next time.