Though it's hard to believe, at one point, Willard was dressed very modestly. Willard owned the audience with its strip tease medley, including "Bad Girls" by Donna Summers, and "Bad Kids" by Lady GaGa. Photo: Paul Duane
Here’s a history lesson for Utah Queers: Which New York Cabaret Queen was friends with Klaus Nomi, danced backup for Bowie on SNL, partied with Warhol, performed regularly at the new wave hot spot Club 57, appeared in the cult drag film To Wong Fu, has worked with fashion darling Thierry Mugler, performance artist Ann Magnuson, puppeteer Basil Twist and was master of ceremonies for Cirque du Soleil’s adult themed Zumanity? The one and only Joey Arias, that’s who. Called the “demigod of the demimonde” by Time Out New York, Arias has made a career out of following the twists and turns of drag and performance culture since 1976, when he drove from L.A. to New York with dreams of performing. Michael Sanders, New Yorker turned Salt Lake business owner, and SLUG’s own Princess Kennedy hosted Arias at Urban Lounge as part of a West Coast tour with composer Kristian Hoffman in honor of legendary German countertenor Klaus Nomi. The tour, called Lightning Strikes, borrowed from the title of a Nomi song, marks the first collaboration between Arias and Hoffman, who were both friends and collaborators with Nomi before his untimely death in 1983.
An effervescent Arias gave Salt Lake a masterful performance, serving up both burlesque realness and cabaret with a twist. Arias has a singular ability to reveal the common elements of seemingly disparate niches of pop culture. In a Joey Arias performance, Billie Holiday flirts with David Bowie, psychedelic pop tunes mingle with theatrical Cirque du Soleil numbers, which are all beset with an irreverent, camp sensibility. All were tossed about Thursday evening.
Our lovely hosts had transformed Urban into a stunningly intimate cabaret club for the evening’s performances, which, besides Arias’s, would include a showcase of Salt Lake’s emerging genderqueer artists, who loosely call themselves the Bad Kids. A backdrop of glam elegance masked Urban’s hipster-by-numbers attitude; VIP seating had eclipsed the dancefloor, a large baroque frame and candelabra hung above the stage alongside a cushioned chair and side table, Blondie and Lou Reed set the appropriate musical mood. Queer elders and young tastemakers alike filled the venue to near capacity, a crowd especially evocative of the chameleon styles of contemporary drag culture. It was truly set to be a gem of a night inspired by the glitz of New York clubs like Joe’s Pub, where Arias recently spent a short residency in preparation for the upcoming tour.
At 9 p.m., Michael Sanders, a veteran host of the New York nightclub scene for over thirty years, climbed onstage to christen the evening. Wearing an American outfit replete with a Western shirt and cowboy hat, the now Salt Lake resident and owner of Urban’s neighbor Now & Again, spoke of his New York roots and long friendship with Arias. Princess Kennedy took over and brought Cartel Fenice to the stage to provide an introduction for the show’s opening performers. Fenice, a self-professed local Tranimal, hosts all-inclusive drag shows at Metro Bar in Salt Lake on Thursday nights as a member of a drag and performance collective called the Bad Kids. Inspired by decades of drag and gaudy pop culture, these young performers have been putting incredible effort building an all inclusive drag/performance art scene in Salt Lake. The first lady of the evening was Marilyn GoLightly, who channeled two of America’s beloved sweethearts, Audrey Hepburn’s cool, disenchanted Holly Golightly and the seductive Marilyn Monroe, in a sultry performance of Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” While it was her first time performing, you wouldn’t know it from the seductive presence she held, absolutely captivating the crowd. Celebrating a visit to her native state from the glamour of San Francisco, Blosom Bottom sang of heartbreak to “Past, Present, and Future” by The Shangri-Las, followed by Bianca who sang to the Dreamgirls tune “One Night Only” with fierce realness. Next was Willard, Salt Lake’s reigning BUTCH QUEEN, who exemplifies everything goofy and sexy and weird about contemporary drag. His performance captured the shift toward contemporary drag from an older era with a set that took Donna Summer’s disco hit “Bad Girls” right into Lady Gaga’s recent “Bad Kids.” Klaus followed with a witchy, ritual-like trance to the Grimes song “Genesis.” The final performance featured Cartel herself belting an original song, “Brave,” with musical accompaniment from Klaus playing a cello. Michael Sanders took the stage again to promote Jewel Box Cabaret, a newly formed concert series that promises to bring the best cabaret acts to Salt Lake.
Arias and Kristian took the stage merely minutes after Sanders left it, something I’m not very accustomed to from my typical concert outings. After greetings, Arias told the crowd that he came to Salt Lake to see all about this “more men” for himself. From then on, Arias portrayed himself as both elegant, in a dazzling black gown, and charmingly campy. Love is “liking every part of you,” sang Arias in his opening number, an upbeat jazzy tune. After a brief introduction of Klaus Nomi, who was Arias’s dear friend, he and Hoffman did the vocally challenging “Nomi Song.” Hoffman, Arias’s pianist for the evening, wrote all of Nomi’s original songs in the early ’80s. Being a post-punk aficionado above all, the Nomi tunes were the most electrifying of the entire evening. Images of Nomi’s robotic, Weimar-era alien Mickey Mouse physique swam in my head, and I was hoping that the crowd would have a similar urge to dance wildly. I seemed to be the only one, but I was still honored at hearing two of Nomi’s dear friends perform some of his classic songs. They did two more of Nomi’s back to back, the operatic new wave tracks “Total Eclipse” and “Lightning Strikes.”
The highlight of the evening ended up being Arias’s knockout performance of the Billie Holiday tune “You’ve Changed,” which nailed everything special about cabaret. It’s a gutsy song choice and Arias hit each and every emotional warble, making the song soar. Then they did another classic Nomi song, “Simple Man,” and after some monkeying around with delay effects and heckling audience members with fart noises, the pair did a daring take on Cream’s psychedelic “White Room.” After an explanation of the Z chromosome, “neither X nor Y, but Z!” Arias sang a tune called “Sex is Beautiful” from his stint as the burlesque ringleader for Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity. The pair ended the show with a cabaret take on a great Hunky Dory–era Bowie tune, “Life on Mars,” bringing the act full circle from Arias’s early days to now.
Keep an eye and an ear open for upcoming Jewel Box Cabaret evenings. Here’s hoping the lightning of cabaret strikes Salt Lake City again and again. Check out more photos by Paul Duane here.