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.

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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.

Interview: Sven Ratzke

Dutch singer Sven Ratzke had a sparkling opening night a Joe’s Pub last night, with a whole bunch of East Village glitterati in attendance, including nightlife legends Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, pioneering performance artist Penny Arcade, Matthew Crosland and Dan Fortune. Ratzke was doing the American premiere of his club act Homme Fatale, and I had this brief exchange with him about the show.

For the purposes of this show, what is your definition of Homme Fatale?

A Homme Fatale is a man that you can compare to a femme fatale. He can be dangerous, wild, and seductive: a pimp, hustler, womanizer, Casanova, Mephisto and many more characters. A Homme Fatale can be also get lost in his own mystery or his own role. But a Homme Fatale means also a man that overcomes fate, that gets in a fatal situation. That can be very feminine and mysterious. So it’s open to interpretation!

Does the idea of Homme Fatale have anything to do with androgyny?

Yes, of course it can. Seduction is always associated with females, while males are more the predator. I totally do not agree. I think especially in our time, these lines are crossing.

Are you a Homme Fatale?

Yes, of course. It’s a title I got a long time ago from the European press. In the beginning, I didn’t know what they meant. I was intrigued.

What, musically, should we expect from this show?

A lot of original new songs. I asked amazing songwriters to write stories and songs for me. And I wrote many songs myself, alone or in collaboration, for example, with the New York-based Rachelle Garniez. And we give new interpretations of the “Hommes Fatale” of pop: Lou Reed, David Bowie, Joy Division and Iggy Pop.

What, theatrically, should we expect from this show?

I take the audience on a trip, like LSD. But you will have no hangover the next day! A trip into the night, around the world with crazy storytelling, swinging songs and intimate ballads. And I’m an entertainer, a stage animal.

This show is about “pimps, lovers, thieves, legends, angels and devils” – that sounds like Jean Genet’s world. Is he an influence here?

Oh yes! A wild Genet dream with a touch of Oscar Wilde, Fassbinder, Bowie and many more.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Storm Large

What a voice! Storm Large has a vocal instrument that pairs the thunderclap power and clarity of Darlene Love with the bluesy grit of Janis Joplin. Her sensibility turns up what that voice can do with strong images of madness and gleeful violence running through everything she does. In her current cabaret act at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, she applies that instrument and sensiblity to a wide variety of material, from hard rock originals and covers to a pair of Cole Porter songs.

Large thoroughly reinvents Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” teasing out the song’s dark stalkery side, with a highly dramatic “classic rock” arrangement that works surprisingly well. Also up for reinvention is Olivia Newton-John’s “Hopelessly Devoted” delivered with a whacky introduction that (almost) makes sense of the insane venomousness that she forceably injects into the soft rock nugget.

Her original songs are each and every one passionate, each in different ways. The show opener, “Call Me Crazy” kicks things off with rousing fury and joy. The title of the cheerfully bawdy “8 Miles Wide” refers to her vagina. On the other end of the scale is the ballad “Angels In Gas Stations” which conveys the sense of spirituality she acquired when caring for a dying woman who had been a second mother to her.

Storm Large delivers a show that bristles with exquisitely controlled wildness. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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