REVIEW: Jherek Bischoff and Amanda Palmer at Courtyard Theatre

Jherek Bischoff at London's Courtyard Theatre.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2016. All rights reserved.

Jherek Bischoff and Amanda Palmer
(Courtyard Theatre, 26 July 2016; review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

The sweltering heat in Hoxton’s tiny Courtyard Theatre united the audience of eighty and those on stage for the London launch of Jherek Bischoff's Cistern album and a run-through with the extraordinary Amanda Palmer of their Bowie tribute ahead of their Proms appearance, accompanied by a brilliant, young string quartet.

The barriers were down right away. "I'm going to keep my coat on … to punish myself," joked Bischoff, met with a riposte from the audience, "You're not sweating, you're sparkling!" When Palmer joined him later she reflected, "I can't even keep my cool coat on. We've never played a gig this hot!" There was much else to unite them, not least, musings on the state of the world. "Brexit - suffering's always relative!" declared Palmer, and the power dynamics of her Dresden Dolls' number, Missed Me, with it's Kurt Weill flavour, were wittily recast: "I'm England, and you [Jherek] are the EU!"

But, foremost, it was the music that made the night special. Bischoff, playing a violin bass with the look of McCartney's Hofner, kicked in at an insistent pace picked up by the strings to summon up a surreal Duane Eddy meets a chamber group tone. He explained, "I'm not of the orchestral world, I'm from a rock and roll background," yet he was equally at home as conductor utilising elegant hand gestures, and his sensitive string arrangements vested authority to all they played - half a dozen haunting compositions from Cistern, their Bowie selection, including an instrumental Life on Mars, which had the feel of George Martin's strings on Eleanor Rigby, his own take on a song by the explosive Congolese outfit, Konono No 1 (reviewed), and three of Palmer's incisively visceral offerings.

Bischoff went out of his way to offer insights to the music. Cistern was inspired by his three day experience of a derelict, two-million gallon WW2 cistern in Washington State, with a 45 second reverb, the site of a 1989 Pauline Oliveros Deep Listening recording, and "changed the way I thought about music."

Each piece was relatively short with carefully deliberate structures, feeling like enticing tasters for extended compositions, and in this stripped back format had a tangible immediacy compared to the full orchestration on the album.

The Sea's Son and The Wolf related to experiences of place. The former echoed, with great poignancy, Bischoff's floating sensation on the open seas when the stars were fleetingly reflected on its perfectly smooth surface. The latter, which he described as "the creepiest thing I have ever written," came out of a winter's residency at the art foundation of Robert Wilson - who directed the staging of Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach (reviewed). Cas(s)iopeia was based on looping four Casios, which created a raw backing for the hovering pitches of the strings and, in contast, the title track's evocation of the cistern's vast internal space was given further articulation when small ringing bells were walked through the audience.

The spell was warmly broken for a communal rendition of Happy Birthday to the first violinist, and, in referendum style, all agreed to "push on through" without an intermission.

Amanda Palmer onstage at London's Courtyard Theatre.
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2106. All rights reserved.

Enter Amanda Palmer, a magnetic performer who engaged instantly with her audience with respect, intelligence and humour. Which is why she and Bischoff have such a fruitful working relationship. Her compelling stage presence combines extroversion with humility. There is no side to her. She has a great voice and knows exactly when to hit the accelerator. Her songs deal with difficult subjects, the darker sides of human relationships and her staring eyes, clenched teeth and fists, and exaggerated, angular movements expressed the horrors and uncertainties of The Killing Type and The Bed Song ('Holding back those king-size tears').

She and Bischoff had the audience singing along to their beautifully arranged string quartet tributes to Bowie, counting down in Space Oddity, following every word in Ashes to Ashes and the final number, Heroes, but not before movingly performing Prince's Purple Rain, live, for the very first time, imbuing it with dignity, passion and pathos. "You guys have been the most sing-y audience in the world!" proclaimed Palmer. The perfect compliment to the spellbound house on a truly memorable evening.


  1. Lovely review and drawings. Did I speak with you outside before the show? Clare xxx

  2. Thank you! Yes, we were in the queue together outside the theatre before the doors opened. Very nice to have talked with you. Keep on checking out this site!

  3. Will do. Glad you enjoyed the show. Once I was in the venue I was too hot to move around else it would have been nice to chat more.

  4. Thanks for the review. Who was the string quartet? And was any of the event filmed or recorded?

  5. I wanted to credit these excellent string players when the review was posted - but, as yet, no info on them. Filming / recording - no info, as yet.


  6. Very pleased that we can now credit the superb string quartet:

    Violin 1 - Victoria Bernath
    Violin 2 - Jessie Smart
    Viola - Anisa Arslanagic
    Cello - Patrick Johnson

    ... who responded with such grace and outstanding musicianship to the demands of the scores and the unforgiving but atmosphere-enhancing sauna conditions!

    Many thanks to Mayumi Heider from the Jherek Bischoff camp for that essential information.