Any time Joey Arias – veteran performance art / cabaret legend, toast of Mondo New York and all-round fabulous creature – breezes into London, attendance is freaking obligatory! So, a big gang of us assembled to see his gig last night (Arias is doing a residency at Brasserie Zédel inSoho 11-14 February 2017).
Arias’ speciality is his evocation of doomed jazz diva Billie Holiday in all her earthy, ravaged foul-mouthed hedonistic glory. This isn’t a conventional “tribute act”, though – Arias is freakier, raunchier and far more original than that. And the Art Deco opulence of Brasserie Zédel provided the perfect backdrop, creating a sense of mid-century café society.
Arias himself was a compelling spectacle in fetish-y black Frederick's of Hollywood-style lingerie and full Vampira make-up. His voice is a soulful smoky, scratchy rasp alternately lewd and awash with heartbreak (my friend Louise admitted afterwards she cried several times during Arias’ set). As well as samplings from the Billie Holiday songbook ("You’ve Changed", "God Bless the Child"), Arias also answered the musical question: what would unlikely other songs by the likes of Cream or Bob Dylan sound like given the Holiday torch song treatment (with added Yma Sumac-like bird noises and punctuated by deep stripper squats)? The answer – hilarious, dramatic and exquisite!
Between songs, Arias gave a swear-y but elegant masterclass in audience participation, shuttling between seduction and aggression just because it amused him. Mingling through the crowd, flirting outrageously, he stopped and asked a woman’s name. “Ann-Marie? That’s a whore’s name.” He implored two (platonic) female friends at another table to kiss on the lips. When they hesitated, Arias snapped, “I’m not saying eat her pussy! Just kiss her on the lips! It’s love!” More pointedly, he turned his full laser beams on a rude heterosexual couple who arrived late then proceed to check their mobile phones and talk amongst themselves. “Sarah! Look at me!” Joey hissed. “Focus!” (Who were those two and what were they doing there?)
For the night’s emotional high-point, Arias demanded all the venue’s lights be extinguished (even the neon sign behind the bar) so that he was illuminated by just a single blue spotlight. Then he crooned an eerie, spine-tingling “I Cover the Waterfront”, transforming the jazz standard into an anguished prostitute’s lament. Devastating!
/ Afterwards we ambushed Arias in the lobby for an impromptu red-hot camera session! L-R: (back row) Chris and Pal. Front: Louise, Joey Arias, Nell and me /
/ Above: (Back) Chris, Joey, Nell and Pal. (Front) Louise and Alex /
See the full set of photos from Joey Arias at Brasserie Zédel here
See my photos of Joey Arias performing at London's Institute of Contemporary Art in 2014 here
Read my account of seeing Arias perform in 2013 here