Punk-cabaret became a near-mainstream hyphenate thanks to the Dresden Dolls, a duo that married punk angst and Germany’s Weimar Republic-style cabaret in mime-like whiteface and helped to launch Amanda Palmer’s future solo career. Singer/songwriter/pianist Palmer — raised in Lexington, Mass., a fan of the Cure and school theater — teamed with New Hampshire-bred drummer Brian Viglione, whose tastes ranged from free jazz to hardcore, to form the group in 2000. “He knew exactly how to fill in the gaps of songs,” said Palmer, who’d also spent time as a performance artist, donning a wedding dress as a “living statue” in Harvard Square. “We really lock in with each other live. That’s where the magic happens.”
The Dresden Dolls built an underground following in Cambridge and Boston lofts and clubs like the Lizard Lounge, the Middle East and Jacque’s Cabaret. And that profile grew in 2003 after the duo won the annual WBCN Rock ‘n’ Roll Rumble and hatched its eponymous studio debut (self-released, then reissued on Roadrunner Records), featuring such live favorites as the coy, playful “Coin-Operated Boy” and jittery, pounding “Girl Anachronism.” Concert venues grew in size, and included opening slots for Nine Inch Nails (which later drafted Viglione for its Ghosts I-IV album), though the Dolls continued to enlist the Brigade, a gang of friends and fans who showed up in costume and contributed art and entertainment like a vaudevillian sideshow. While the band tapped some additional musicians on record, the Dolls mainly performed live as a dynamic duo. “The beautiful thing about the piano is you can basically do everything with it,” Palmer said. “You can play it lower than a bass, play percussive high stuff, or mimic an entire orchestra.”
In 2006, in addition to cracking the charts with their second album Yes, Virginia, the Dresden Dolls invaded the American Repertory Theater’s intimate Zero Arrow Theatre (later renamed Oberon) to play the house band in musical theater piece “The Onion Cellar,” for 40 shows that stretched into 2007. That summer found the Dresden Dolls supporting the LGBTQ community as part of the True Colors tour with Cyndi Lauper, Erasure and Deborah Harry. But the Dolls mainly spent the following years on hiatus, except for triumphant reunion shows in 2010 and 2016 that reminded people of the band that put the emerging genre of “dark cabaret” on the map.
(by Paul Robicheau)