You could probably go to any American high school and find a teenager to tell you about the connections between musical theater, drama, performance art, and mild gothiness all without the kid ever needing to reference Kurt Weill, Edward Gorey, Weimar cabaret, Stephen Sondheim, pantomime, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But there’s a slim chance, these days, that that teenager might include a reference to the Dresden Dolls, a Boston duo that’s spent the last decade floating around those intersections. They’d probably hate to hear me say that, because they dislike getting the word “gothic” anywhere near them they’d rather be “Brechtian,” as in the German dramatist behind The Threepenny Opera. But it's not my fault if they happen to share a few interests with goths, right?
I mostly mention that side of things because yesterday was Halloween, and the Dresden Dolls were back together. The act has been on hiatus for a few years, with both members working on other projects. (Singer Amanda Palmer is particularly busy; she plays solo and as part of another duo, and is presumably still planning a wedding with writer Neil Gaiman.) But this fall they’re doing a short reunion run, and they kicked it off last night at Irving Plaza. And I can tell you this: It’s difficult to find a crowd as receptive as the one that’ll skip Halloween parties to show up for a cult act that hasn’t played in a few years. This was a sold-out venue full of people who really, really wanted to be there most of them to see the Dolls, but also a few older rock geeks who came to see the Legendary Pink Dots, a long-running and hard-to-define act that Palmer calls her favorite.
The fans got their money’s worth, too, and not just because of the big balloon drop during a cover of the viral-video “Double Rainbow” song. The band Palmer on electric piano and vocals, and the terrific Brian Viglione on drums (and pantomime asides) is built to be stagey and theatrical, and they have a looseness that’s great to watch. They know each other and their set well enough that they can wind down in the middle of a song to chatter among themselves or talk back to the audience. They pepper their act with storytelling numbers. They’ve also collected exactly the kind of fan base that enjoys dressing up and gathering together at their feet, which is a good bet for Halloween: When I noticed a crew-cut guy in a sleeveless T-shirt going nuts for every song, I actually had to wonder for a second whether he was so clever he’d come in costume as an average dude. Turns out part of the reason for the Halloween booking was that the two members of Dresden Dolls met at a Halloween party, exactly ten years ago; the friend who introduced them was in attendance.
The best thing about the act, though, is what a great pop band Dresden Dolls turned out to be. Their early act was a kind of costumed “punk cabaret,” and plenty of people found it too stagey, too artificial too theater-folk. But by the time of 2006’s Yes, Virginia they’d become a really grand thing on record, turning out the kinds of big songs everyone at this show could sing along with, lustily, through every turn. (The peaks of “Backstabber” got hands in the air.) I don’t know that the band ever got enough credit for that, or the chance to really capitalize on it so a quick spin around the eastern half of the country, checking in with the fan base and selling copies of the one collection of songs they own the rights to, seems well-deserved.