Live: Evelyn Evelyn

OBERON (CAMBRIDGE, MA.) — 4/12/2010: Two and a half years ago, when it was known as the Zero Arrow Theatre, Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley were in this very space as performers in Sxip Shirey‘s variety revue, playing songs by their newest discoveries, conjoined-twin singer-songwriters who specialized in songs of childlike wonder.

Things have changed since then. The Zero Arrow rotated its floor plan 90 degrees and turned into Oberon, while the two-armed, two-headed, three-legged Evelyn Evelyn have been unveiled as Palmer and Webley themselves, clad in wigs and a single outfit with room for them both. And the childlike wonder? Oh, that’s taken its own rather darkish 90-degree turn.

Just how dark was on display on April 12, when the duo debuted Evelyn Evelyn as an actual performing unit. It wasn’t a concert, exactly, more like a spartan stage show advancing the Evelyns’ story, from their birth (soaked in blood, little of it theirs) through their carnival upbringing and unhappy future prospects. In fact, this is the first concert review I’ve ever written where I feel like I need to issue a spoiler warning.

With Shirey on hand to serve as an aggressively exploitative sideshow barker, Evelyn Evelyn seemed less like they were interested in entertaining or even expressing themselves than in simply weathering his torrent of abuse. Their faces impassive like a pair of warped Buster Keatons, Palmer and Webley remained stoically grim throughout.

Except when they broke character by laughing. One of Palmer’s most crucial saving graces as an artist has always been the fact that no matter how much it feels like she’s ripping a song from the pit of her guts or how far out on a limb she’s willing to go, she’s still aware that what she does is at least a little bit funny. As Webley’s left hand played accordion and her own right hand worked percussion, Palmer tried not to crack up whenever she sang the title of “Chicken Man.” And she struggled it keep it together after a mishap with a can of Red Bull, which went up her face instead of into her mouth.

She always managed to get back on track, though, because there was a tale to be told that largely followed the track listing of the Evelyn Evelyn album. The sisters’ tragic story was leavened with the ragtime “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?” and the playful bop of “Elephant Elephant.” The warped Neutral Milk Hotel country of “You Only Want Me ‘Cause You Want My Sister” could have been a cheap joke but developed actual poignancy thanks to the Evelyns (and Palmer and Webley) delivering it with conviction, rather than camp.

And the yearning for a life without the sideshow’s indignities described in the sadly triumphant “My Space” was wrenching and horrible, but it also climaxed with the exact power-ballad majesty that the song meant to parody. It was capped by an act of violence and a dark finale reprise of “Evelyn Evelyn,” where they faced the prospect of where their lives could go from there.

With a raft of technical problems and the first-time giggles, the show was still a work in progress, so much so that Palmer and Webley solicited feedback from the audience in a post-show Q&A. (The general consensus: a little too ramshackle at the moment.) But Evelyn Evelyn, as both characters within a story and a concept for a project, still managed to do something fairly remarkable: they held together by sheer force of will, and they survived the long odds against them.

Live review by . Live review posted Wednesday, May 26th, 2010. Filed under Features, Live Reviews.

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