Covid-19: Finding a community in isolation at Palmer and Gaiman's show

7:44 pm on 17 March 2020

By Nik Dirga*

Opinion - American singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer had to cancel her Wellington gig last night, but a livestreamed 'ninja concert' created a different kind of community - isolated, but together.

Singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer at the Wellington show.

Singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer at the Wellington show. Photo: Twitter/ Amanda Palmer

I went to the last concert I'm likely to go to for some time the other night.

American singer/songwriter Amanda Palmer played two sold-out shows at Auckland's Hollywood Cinema last week. It was an epic, exhausting four-hour gig, combining intense spoken-word storytelling with Palmer's cathartic songs.

Palmer was on the last leg of her worldwide tour, but it wouldn't finish as scheduled, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. She performed a shorter show in Christchurch Saturday, but the Wellington event set for Monday night was cancelled entirely.

But Palmer decided to put on a show anyway, taking to St Peter's Anglican Church for a livestream event with a bit of help from her husband, bestselling writer Neil Gaiman, creator of Sandman, American Gods and Good Omens.

It was an impromptu "ninja concert," broadcast out to those who couldn't attend Palmer's cancelled Wellington show, and to a global audience as well.

Palmer assembled a few locals and visitors to help, and stood up alone with a ukulele and keyboard in a nearly deserted hall, performing as the sun went down.

She played a few songs and a wonderful cover of Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees, she talked about hope and fears and answered viewer questions. The video occasionally glitched out and the sound sometimes faded. It wasn't a glamorous event. Yet it was a welcome substitute for the Wellington concert that never was.

Visitors slowly streamed in to watch, topping 3200 at one point.

Amanda Palmer concert in Berlin.

Amanda Palmer in concert in Berlin. Photo: AFP

People popped in from Wellington, from Newton and Brooklyn, but also from America, Italy, Israel and Hungary, and a steady stream of comments flowed next to the livestream.

And wonder of wonders, the comments were almost uniformly positive.

"Thanks for helping me feel less alone tonight," wrote Bran from Vancouver Island, Canada.

Neil Gaiman took to the pulpit to read Edgar Allan Poe's story The Masque of the Red Death, and though we were all strangers, names flickering by on a screen, we felt wrapped up in one virtual story-time.

Writer Neil Gaiman.

Writer Neil Gaiman Photo: CC: Pinguino k.

It seems odd, perhaps, to get warm and fuzzy over an author reading aloud one of the great macabre stories in literature, about a deadly plague running amok of all things. But something about Gaiman's consoling voice and the intimate setting of the empty church made this seem just the right idea to do at the time.

"You only have two choices - you keep making art, or you stop," Gaiman said to viewers.

"And if you keep creating art, you may make magic, you may make things that other people need. You may make the things that you need to get through the darkness."

Palmer's entire career has been about forming communities - she funds her work through Patreon subscriptions, and has a devoted fanbase. Like many in the artistic world, she's scared of what may happen as art, travel, hospitality and the fragile "gig economy" take a hit during the coronavirus siege.

"Art is a very particular kind of nourishment for society," she said. "You can't eat it, but it's food."

We get so used to the internet feeling toxic, abuse being splashed out by keyboard warriors left and right, that we forget that it can be a positive force.

And that maybe in these confusing, uncertain times, we can find new ways of making a community. If Facebook or Twitter get too nasty, there's plenty of other options.

No caption

American performer Amanda Palmer. Photo: Supplied

A call was put out online for a copy of the children's classic Goodnight, Moon to be brought for Gaiman to read from at the end of the show. Within 20 minutes, a local Wellington woman knocked on the church door to bring her copy. Crowdsourcing art.

This makeshift online show wasn't quite the same as being jammed into the crowded Hollywood Cinema watching Amanda Palmer in person last week. That was a special gig too, hundreds of people gathered in one space very aware that it might be the last time for such events for a long while.

But online Monday, with the cascade of voices chiming in from all over the world, with the cheerful hope of Palmer and Gaiman doing their best to make a dent in battered spirits, it felt like a different kind of community.

Isolated, but together.

Palmer rang out the night with her song "The Ride," which feels distinctly written for this moment in time: "Everyone's frightened they don't know what's coming / But everyone's frightened of knowing," it begins.

Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer Photo: Wikicommons

This is a scary time, a time not quite like anything any of us have ever experienced. There's never been a time in modern memory where the simple act of being with other people worldwide was so fraught with fear.

And yes, we do need economic certainty. We need health security. We need food, water and even toilet paper.

And nobody knows quite what's going to happen next.

But we still need art, too, a place to go to take us somewhere else, whether it's Netflix or music or a good book or a classic movie. Art comforts us. For however many of us end up stuck in isolation in coming weeks, art may well help keep us alive.

For a brief time Monday night, a mostly empty church in Wellington felt like a beacon of light, broadcasting a little of that comfort all around the world.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs