Review: Justin Vivian Bond

I’ve often referred to Judy Collins as a river of song – it just flows out of her in a gorgeous shimmering stream. Justin Vivian Bond is more like a tower of song – mysterious, imposing, beautiful, powerful and sometimes explosive. JVB’s current show “Under the Influence” is a tribute to Collins, part of Collins’ 2019 Vanguard Award and Residency at Joe’s Pub.

V considers Judy Collins to be v’s own spiritual baby sitter and music teacher. Collins significantly if indirectly educated Justin in music – all by the songs and songwriters Collins covered. So, with only a couple exceptions, Bond performs songs written by songwriters she discovered through Collins – but which Judy herself did not sing.

Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. V turns David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” into something more rawly emotional, and fiercely sharpens the danger in Leonard Cohen’s “First We Take Manhattan” (in probably the best version of that song I’ve ever heard). V’s climactic rendition of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” truly burns down the house.

One of the best features of all of Bond’s shows is v’s acidly funny, stream of consciousness, between-song patter (which has had the downside of making certain shows marathon length, but not here). As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Dianna Agron

“High-falutin’ honky-tonk” – that’s my “elevator pitch” for Diana Agron’s current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle. She originally designed her songlist to compliment her first run at the Carlyle, which found her singing the music of “some of the finest male-fronted acts of the ’70s.” Here, she mainly covers songs originally done by other women. She keeps breaking her own rules to put together a show that feels right, which makes it harder to explain, asking the audience if they have any suggestions.

The former Glee star recently married folk rock band Mumford & Sons’ banjoist and guitarist Winston Marshall. Her own musical aesthetic lines up less with Glee, and more with the style of her husband’s band. This is a beautiful young woman with a gorgeous voice who is nowhere more comfortable than when she’s singing a cover of a 1960s folk rock chestnut or 1950s standard.

On her first run, Agron was hesitant when it come to patter, but calmed right down when it came time to sing. She’s not necessarily more eloquent between songs this time, but she’s all-around more confident and in command, which lends her off-hand comments a kind of raffish charm. No song was less than beautifully sung, and, as before, she performs best when a song brings out the actress in her – most notably in Eartha Kitt’s wicked signature tune “I Want to Be Evil” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”

There’s an enormous amount of potential here – I would give a lot to hear Agron’s huskily golden yet liquid voice act the hell out of some of June Christie’s sophisticated material. The job in cabaret, as much as in theatre and film, is storytelling, and Agron is getting better at doing that in this format. In any event, Agron gives us enough wonderfully sung renditions of dauntingly complex songs that I can heartily recommend her.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

This show was intended to be called “Justin Vivian Bond is Regifted,” but somewhere between the time when Bond sent v’s title and blurb to the Joe’s Pub office and the time the tickets were printed, some device somewhere “auto-corrected” the title to “Justin Vivian Bond is Refrigerated.” JVB figured “well, the tickets have been printed,” kinda liked the title, and thought it wouldn’t take much to move the show in that direction. One of the adjustments v made was to open with a passionate version of Annie Lennox’s “Cold,” setting up the “fire and ice” dynamic that has always been JVB’s wheelhouse.

The legendary Kiki & Herb Christmas shows of yore were full of vitriol and blasphemy. More love than vitriol now (though when v touches on a subject worth the vitriol, v doesn’t hold back), and an end to blaspheming in favor of something more spiritually positive: Bond now puts v’s own pagan ambivalence about Christmas at the heart of the show. For instance there’s a dark little medley celebrating the winter solstice, dedicated to Judy Collins.

The musical backing from Matt Ray on piano, Nath Ann Carrera on guitar and Claudia Chopek on violin is sophisticated and rich. There’s nothing particularly jazzy about the arrangements – if anything they are redolent of folk rock and chamber pop – but there is a powerful sense of improvisational give and take.

Bond is one of the most original and potent performers of our time, whom I think everybody should see at least once. Or more often – there’s something new and freshly rewarding about every single performance.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Pharoah Sanders

Jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman once called Pharoah Sanders “probably the best tenor player in the world.” Tenor saxophone, that is, and based on what I experienced seeing him at Birdland, I’d have to agree. But he’s more than that: there’s something visionary about Sanders. When he begins to play, the room he’s playing in feels somehow different, lighter.

Sanders was an important player in the frequently dissonant free jazz scene of the early 1960s, but as he embarked on a career as a leader rather than a sideman, he reinterpreted what the “free” in free jazz meant. For him, it meant free and full expression using any and all means available, the tonal as well as the atonal, the sweet as well as the dissonant. It also meant exploring freedom in the political sense, and above all in a spiritual sense. One can easily interpret Sanders work from the late 1960s onward as one long exploration of what it means to be spiritually free – and how does one express that in music?

The first composition he performed began with the band playing a gentle, soothing pentatonic wash for several minutes. When Sanders joined in at first he went with that gentle flow, but then there was one of those angular, sharp, atonal runs that were a hallmark of Pharoah’s early avant-garde work, appearing with the speed, suddenness and uncanniness of lightning in a clear blue sky.

Some other astonishing moments: at the end of a yearning ballad, Sanders slows everything down in a short coda in which every note surprises and yet is exactly right, especially the breathtaking second to last note at the very bottom of his instrument’s range. After which he immediately bounces into a playful blues that finds this physically frail septuagenarian dancing around and hamming it up, strumming his sax as if it was a guitar. In this number each of the sidemen gets an extended solo; Nate Reeves’s solo stands as the single best jazz bass solo I have ever heard, jumping back and forth between virtuosic techniques with impossible nimbleness.

And at the very end, Sanders played a bit of his epic statement of purpose “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” singing in a strong warm voice, gently emphasizing one word, to powerful effect: “The creator makes but one demand / Happiness through all the land.” Then he launches into John Coltrane’s masterpiece “A Love Supreme” for a few soaring minutes before concluding with a return to “Creator.” Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Raja

One of the most effortlessly stylish queens ever to appear on Drag Race, Raja is doing her second solo cabaret show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Titled Masque, the show features a little bit of everything: some singing, some monologuing about contemporary issues, and a whole lot of fashion fierceness.

As a matter of fact, after singing one of her original songs in a bejeweled and horned mask, Raja says “this is the part of the show where I do nothing but fucking model for two and a half minutes,” proceeding to give indescribable body and face to Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” There’s your admission fee covered right there.

And even though she says “that all the choreography you’re going to get” after a handful of hip bumps in her first sung cover of the evening – Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” – don’t you believe it. Raja instinctively swirls, twirls and dips with aplomb whenever there’s music. That makes me wish the ratio of talk to music favored music more, even though the monologues are spiritually and politically deft and intelligent. Maybe a tad repetitive, but I’ll chalk that up to the weed and wine she cheerfully admits to having taken in.

Raja has a warm charismatic presence, which makes you think she’d be able to put over just about anything she wanted. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Tammie Brown

After seeing a live show of Tammie Brown, I finally have a bead on this surrealist drag queen’s artistic core. She is, more than anything, a hippie chic queerpunk singer-songwriter. There’s a hint of classic movie queen in her looks, but it seems that’s the equivalent of Debbie Harry or Grace Slick making something fabulous out of what she found in a thrift shop.

And while Tammie’s sense of humor is disarmingly unique, she’s not truly unprecedented. I could see her comfortably do her left-of-center thing at the Pyramid Club in the 1980s, at Club 57 or Max’s Kansas City in 1970s, or even in a Jackie Curtis extravaganza at LaMaMa in the late 1960s. However, queens this tripped-out are in short supply these days, so we should treat her, to quote the title of her show, as a National Treasure.

Brown also proudly wears her South Texan origins, singing a couple of songs in Spanish, and showing love for all things Mexican (maybe there’s a Frida Kahlo influence here, too, eh?). Tammie sways happily about the stage while her faerie fey guitarist Michael J. Catti converts all of her original oddball techno-pop songs from that style into something much more pleasant: SoCal-flavored psychedelic and/or “soft” rock. And her in-between patter veers between gleeful non sequiturs and political commentaries from the silly to the venomous. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Justin Vivian Bond

“JVB goes masc,” Mx Justin Vivian Bond drolly purrs after a roaring opening performance of Iggy Pop’s “Cry for Love.” After years of covering female singer-songwriters, Bond has decided it’s time for a change of course with a new cabaret show Boys in the Trees, named for the Carly Simon song of the same name. Viv has subtitled the show “Justin Vivian Bond sings All the Young Dudes – a Rite of Spring,” which is a significant indication of what v’s getting at. “All The Young Dudes” is a song David Bowie wrote for glam rock band Mott the Hoople, and this show has a substantial glam rock bent, with much Bowie, as well as Lou Reed and Roxy Music.

The “Rite of Spring” part suggests sexuality and sensuality, which is overflowing in this show. Viv’s tag line makes this explicit: “Instead of singing songs by people I wanted to BE, I thought it would be hawt to sing the songs of the people I wanted to FUCK!” This probably overstates the case, as JVB admits by ambiguously saying “once I picked the song list, I found I hadn’t realized I wanted to fuck these guys.” Rather, desire and longing pulse through the evening like a hastened heartbeat. The title song – the only one on the song list originally sung by a woman – includes the telling lyrics “Last night I slept in sheets the colour of fire / Tonight I lie alone again and curse my own desires.”

In many ways Viv keeps to v’s usual combination of wryly cynical observations and heartfelt song renditions. As always Bond’s taste in songs is impeccable, and v approaches them with the touch of a very careful curator. A curator, that is, who finds what is most explosive in the art they’re presenting, and then promptly detonates it. It doesn’t take much to ignite Bowie’s melodramatically compassionate “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide,” but by the time Viv reaches that climax, v’s already taken Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul” and Lenny Kravitz’s “Fields of Joy” to places infinitely more fiery than the originals. Even Andy Gibb’s “Thicker Than Water” gets a rosy, yearning glow, untouched by irony.

The choice of finale, however, is beyond perfect. Roxy Music’s “Mother of Pearl” starts in a very romantic, sincere place, but then singer-songwriter Bryan Ferry laces more and more distance into the lyrics as the song progresses, lines like “Oh Mother of Pearl, so semi-precious in your detached world.” It marries JVB’s gimlet-eyed perspective to intimations of passion and love than is perhaps real, perhaps an illusion. Devastating.

As always Bond is hilariously entertaining, wildly imaginative and vividly expressive. And thank goodness Viv has given us another show that leaves you wanting more, and adds some more uptempo selections to the ballads Bond favors. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.