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Photo Credit :: MRNY
Arts & Entertainment
Joey Arias in Concert
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
October 2, 2010     photo-album 
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Before Gaga, there was Joey. That would be Arias, as in Joey Arias, the incomparable and inimitable chanteuse and critic's darling, long celebrated for her channeling of the voice (and aura) of Billie Holiday. After a six-year sabbatical in Las Vegas as the Mistress of Seduction for Cirque du Soleil's "Zumanity," Arias recently returned to her downtown roots for her first New York concerts in nearly a decade - and as Arias made perfectly clear on her opening weekend at the Abrons Arts Center at the Henry Street Settlement, that new generation of gender-bending, outré-costumed performers owes more than a heavy-lidded wink to Arias's groundbreaking persona.

As Arias recalls, it was at a party with Andy Warhol, during a stint working at Fiorucci's (the forerunner to Patricia Field, for you youngsters), that her iconic personality began its public evolution. Equal parts femme fatale with the bawdy humor of Mae West and a Joan Crawford smolder, Arias's current persona incorporates Fifties centerfold Betty Page bangs with the wasp-waisted figure of a Barbie Doll, from the square shoulders right down to the impossibly vertical arch of her feet, shod in don't-fuck-with-me-fellas stilettos. Or as Arias jokingly refers to it, "my cocaine waist, from Cirque training," which makes Scarlett O'Hara's eighteen-incher look downright obese.

At the Abrons, Arias took the stage sheathed in a very Dior-ish "New Look" ensemble, which was the result of a conversation Arias had had with her costumer who'd asked how she'd like to look for her new show. "How about something a little Kim Novak?" she'd suggested. "With color." At which point, Arias gazed down at the murky, reptile-scaled, serpentine brocade ensemble encasing her Jessica Rabbit figure. Gazed deadpan at the audience, then down at her tenebrous suit. "Color," she said again. The audience roared.

As much a Mistress of Delivery as seduction, Arias has pitch-perfect command of her audience, which, on Saturday night, was a sold-out house of downtown habitués, many of them bold-faced performers (including Justin Bond, Penny Arcade, Randy Jones, ChiChi Valenti) more than a few of whom have followed Arias through the mirthfully melodramatic chapters of her life - and as they made clear from their thunderous applause at the moment of her entrance, there's no question as to why Arias is known to them as The Goddess.

The concert that brought Arias back to the downtown stage was a two-year labor of love from inception to realization by wunderkind producer, Earl Dax, who had previously brought Arias and Sherry Vine to Spiegeltent, and who has a proven track record of working with legendary talent - and the choice of the Abrons was particularly astute. Originally built in 1915, the historic 350-seat proscenium playhouse has been home to artists and performers such as Martha Graham, Eartha Kitt, Agnes de Mille, Orson Welles - and now Arias.

Backed by a four-piece band, led by bassist and musical director Ben Allison, Arias opened with a riotous version of Cream's "White Room," a rock-n-roll number that left the audience loudly cheering and Arias contending, "That got my pussy all worked up."

From there she dragged a wooden stool forward, declaring, "One million dollar production show here," her lips and eyes working together in mischievous merriment.

A story about her recent performance with Basil Twist in the Bergdorf windows for Fashion Night Out during New York Fashion Week, led into an anecdote about a woman named Dolores "Lala" Brooks, the voice behind Phil Spector's wall of sound - and then into Arias's version of the Sixties chestnut, "Be My Baby," which soon became an audience sing along.

Stepping carefully (and with the assistance of a comely, front-row lad) from the stage, Arias roamed the celebrity-studded audience, securing vocal cameos from the likes of Justin Bond, Penny Arcade, and a particularly stellar performance from Randy Jones of the Village People. (As Bond later said, laughing, "Fortunately, I knew the words: 'Be my, be my baby. Be my baby now.'")

Other concert highlights included Arias's versions from the Beatles songbook, including "A Hard Day's Night" and Arias's hypnotizing, romantic rendition of "Something," as well as the Supremes' "My World Is Empty Without You," during which Arias continually stressed the words "without you, babe, without you," making the song infinitely more about melancholic yearning than at any time sung by Miss Ross.

And there was also Arias singing Burt Bacharach’s "The Look of Love" - to her brand-new baby: a French bulldog puppy. At that point, Arias had stripped down to a bustier and little else, save for her stilettos - and if you think you saw it all when Patti Lupone worked a tuba while playing Mrs. Lovett, you're wrong.

For many in the audience, it was Arias as Billie Holiday they had come to hear. Growing up in California, Arias became fascinated with Billie Holiday's voice, particularly what she calls that "Billie Holiday timbre, very sweet and soft. It's not a shouting voice; it's sensitive." To hear Arias sing Billie is a revelation - for when Arias sings the Holiday canon, it's less a matter of interpretation than it is a spiritual incorporation: she's actually inside the song. At one point during "God Bless the Child," Arias's voice was little more than a whisper - before she unleashed a soaring, ethereal high note that took the song into the realm of wrenching wonder. Equally at home with "Them There Eyes" as she is with "Why Don't You Do Right?" (complete with audience hijinks), Arias inhabits "Strange Fruit" as fully as Lady Day - and on Saturday night, her searing rendition, during the lyrics "from the poplar trees," drew out the sibilance in the word "trees" so that you heard the Southern leaves shuddering in the breeze.

Even in the instrumental break between verse and chorus, Arias continues singing - with her body and soul - in a completely holistic inhabitation of the material that reveals multiple layers of experiential knowledge and life-lived wisdom, as when she sang "Good Morning Heartache" as a second encore.

Only a select few performers enable such tangible connections with their audiences; only the most sui generis artist seems able to transcend the boards and the fourth wall, thereby inviting every audience member deep inside their soul. Garland was one; Arias is another.