Last Friday night, on the eve of the first of two rare reunion shows by The Dresden Dolls, Boston’s Blue Hills Bank Pavilion was filled with an unmissable cult of concertgoers. Face-painted, pinstriped, sporting masks and horns, and dressed in all kinds of bawdy, cabaret-inspired outfits, the Dolls’ acolytes had converted the open-air riverside space into a scene from the band’s storied mid-2000s zenith, a time when stilt-walkers and fire-breathers entertained fans during lulls in the band’s dark strain of alt-rock theater. As I arrived, a performance by Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, a Somerville-based act decked out in steampunk garb, was well under way just outside the pavilion’s big white tent, with the goth-y audience gathered and dancing around them. The scene was surreal — a kind of half-circus, half–performance art piece — but then, uncanny performances have always been The Dresden Dolls’ forte.
Drawing on the aesthetics of 20th-century cabaret and Weimar-era Germany, The Dresden Dolls — a.k.a. pianist/singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer and drummer Brian Viglione — occupied a curious space in the last decade’s alt-rock, largely because the genre never quite fit. The Bostonian duo’s influences were all over the map; they made “Brechtian punk” that in one moment could channel the high drama of German composer Kurt Weill and in the next the pointed and playful songcraft of Kate Bush. While Palmer wrote oddball, self-contained stories about depression and failed romance, Viglione — an energetic, madman drummer in the vein of Black Flag and Black Sabbath — matched her intensity beat for beat. Together, the two gave each song on their 2004 self-titled debut a sense of end-of-the-world franticness, as though by the final song’s heartbreaking end, they both knew it was all going to implode.
As an arts-obsessed, awkward kid growing up both in the closet and in the South, I reached for the Dolls’ strange music like a lifeboat. I saw the video for “Coin-Operated Boy” for the first time late at night on MTV2 as a 13-year-old and fell in love with both of them. With the duo acting out a romance — Viglione as the plasticized boy of the title, both of their faces powdered white and Palmer’s eyebrows inked on — that video provided a kind of theatrical, retro-leaning visual statement that I was drawn to. The Dolls were verbose outcasts eager to gather fellow weirdos together in their madcap funhouse — it’s no wonder lonely art kids vibed so well with them. Their debut album, passed on to me by my older brother, became a sacred text. Beyond the memorable music-box melodies of “Coin-Operated Boy,” the more humanizing nuances of the song’s bridge resonated with me too: the nagging fear that it’s not other boys who are the problem, that it’s you who is afraid of getting close. Palmer picks up that thread of self-reflection edging on self-laceration again on “Girl Anachronism,” though this time focused on feeling isolated and out of sync with the rest of the world’s expectations. That song, with its unrelenting piano and clamor of drums, is a perfect distillation of the bombastic, outsider songwriting that was the Dolls’ specialty.
Following their debut, the power and appeal of the Dolls’ working and personal relationship — Palmer and Viglione were off-and-on lovers, who perform with an onstage shorthand that indicates years of intimacy — helped them build a cult following well above their peers in the local Boston scene and beyond. The two nabbed an opening spot for Nine Inch Nails in 2005, and they released their second and final album, Yes, Virginia..., a year later. Slightly poppier but laced with the same dark, self-aware DNA of its predecessor, that album became the band’s most successful release, going on to chart on the Billboard 200, receive critical acclaim, and spawn instant fan favorites.
The band went on hiatus two years later while Palmer recorded a solo album and have remained in that limbo ever since, with a lone B-side release, No, Virginia..., in 2008. All of which is not to say The Dresden Dolls are entirely defunct — they came together as recently as last April for a Record Store Day performance in Brooklyn and did a two-month reunion tour in 2010. Both Palmer and Viglione have pursued separate musical projects as well; Palmer in particular has become a lightning rod in her own right, with some of her projects and methods of web-based self-promotion since The Dresden Dolls proving wildly questionable.
But there’s still a sense of spectacle when the Dolls do get together, whether fueled by nostalgia or otherwise. Their shows feel like time capsules now, providing a glimpse into a very specific, early-internet-indebted era of music when word of mouth through emails and message boards was just starting to furnish indie bands with tangible success. On Friday, that history — and, coincidentally, a sort-of future — was on full, strange display. Prior to the Dolls’ set, Palmer flounced onstage to introduce Brooklyn duo PWR BTTM, who, in her words, are a continuation of the Dolls’ self-ascribed “punk cabaret.” The designation makes sense — performing with highwire energy, dripping in glitter, and wrapped in dresses, Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins’s music felt indebted to the Dolls’ dramaturgy but twisted into new, surprising, and delightfully queerer shapes. Between tearing through songs from last year’s Ugly Cherries, the band joked with the audience, pointed out their parents in the crowd, and made sure to highlight the one-minute drag-makeover stand set up in a corner of the pavilion (“I designed it myself,” Hopkins boasted).
When The Dresden Dolls took the stage shortly thereafter, drenched in smoke and swirling purple lights, the three tiers of stadium seating were suddenly filled. Opening with the first song on their debut, “Good Day,” the pair immediately seemed at home. Viglione was perhaps more in his element than Palmer — pantomiming behind his drumkit, launching drumsticks into the crowd, and whipping out guitars both acoustic and electric later on for covers of Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” and Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party),” he was all muscular energy and goodwill, like a mime who'd abandoned silence for the glee of making the loudest sounds he could possibly find.
That the show took place in their old stomping grounds didn’t go unnoted. “Most of the songs we’re playing tonight are about ex-boyfriends in Boston,” Palmer announced by the third song of the set, “Backstabber.” But the mood was more nostalgic than anything else. Palmer and Viglione both name-checked several local establishments — DB’s Golden Banana, an old Denny’s in Saugus, the local coin-operated laundromat by Storrow Drive and Massachusetts Avenue that served as inspiration for “Coin-Operated Boy” — that have since closed, in part because of the city’s encroaching gentrification.
Back in 2008, the duo went on hiatus because of what their working relationship had become; being in The Dresden Dolls in its tail-end sounded more like a mutually abusive relationship than a band. “We were exhausting each other,” Palmer has explained. “Not just ourselves, but eight years nonstop with the same person, especially when we have a really volatile relationship ... it’s good, but it’s intense. We just burned out.” Seeing them last week, all that volatility channeled into collaboration again — together onstage, celebrating their unwavering, almost scarily in-touch bond — it worked. Escapism can take many forms in music, but there was no better way to it for me than hearing stories unravel between two aggressively talented percussionists, both of them beating their hearts out for a “tent of incredible freaks,” as Palmer dubbed us.
“I have to say,” she added toward the end of their set, white face paint running down both hers and Viglione’s necks with sweat, “The Dresden Dolls haven’t changed a bit.”