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Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

Thursday, October 13, 2005

People Die, Ladies and Gentlemen. That's All You Need To Know.

...but then they come back from the dead, apparently.

So I learned when one of my favorite live acts turned up in the "Early Warnings" section of the Chicago Reader, two years after packing it in with a blow-out performance at Carnegie Hall, in which the very title of their show promised that they "Will Die For You".

Clearly, ya can't kill Kiki & Herb, because they died and now they're back. We might as well put them on that infamous list with cockroaches, Tina Turner, Cher and twinkies.

For those of you who don't know who I'm talking about (and unfortunately, there are far too many of you poor lambs out there), here's a quick primer.

After absorbing that clicky-treat and no doubt becoming even more bewildered by what I'm babbling on about, I shall attempt to conjure a dab of perspective by way of a creamy schmear of personal history:

Justin Bond (a/k/a "Kiki DuRane") is kind of a gender enigma - he/she (for the sake of argument, let's just say "she") has taken drag performance to the next level, where talent and original material far eclipse the novelty of a guy camping it up in a dress; furthermore, Bond has always lent a further air of dignity to her work by erasing the schtick of drag or "gender illusionist" typicalia.

Is "typicalia" a word? Can we let it be a word, just for today? Thanks.

Kiki is Justin Bond's alter-ego - an ancient, alcoholic, cheerfully embittered song-and-dance relic. Kiki is also half of the prehistoric lounge act known as Kiki & Herb. We've all seen their act before - two hip kids dressing like pathetic Vegas burn-outs, singing off key and telling the audience to tip their waitresses and try the lasagna.

This ain't your average SNL skit, however.

Kiki, accompanied by her "retarded gay Jew" pianist Herb (a/k/a the lovely and talented Kenny Mellman), turn cabaret performance on its ear with their mastery of pop-culture satire and their post-modern attack on threadbare retro stand-bys.

And the songs. Oh, my goodness, the songs.

If you go to a Kiki & Herb show expecting to hear a handful of showtunes and maybe a Gloria Gaynor song or two, you'll be in for quite a shock. A typical set list includes songs by Kate Bush, Radiohead, Prince, Wu-Tang Clan, Magnetic Fields, Suicidal Tendencies, Cheap Trick and whatever other insanely obscure treasure they can find to catch an audience off-guard.

Their show starts with a rickety vibe of glee and old-skool showbiz pizazz, and becomes progressively darker and, well, I'll just say it - more frightening, with each swig Kiki takes of her notoriously potent cocktails throughout the night's performance.

By frightening, I mean Courtney Love frightening. I mean a sloppy drunk septugenarian slurring the words to a gangsta rap song as she hulks toward your table and unsuccessfully attempts to pull the tablecloth out from under your drinks, after which she will hand you the microphone and break into a stumbling conniption of a softshoe routine before crawling back on stage and howling like a demented chihuahua until she finally trembles off stage in a defeated heap.

Then, five minutes and a visit to the ladies room later, Kiki's back on stage, all smiles and jazz hands, warbling her way giddily through a Belle & Sebastian song.

And it all manages to work out into one of the best evenings of live performance you're ever likely to see. Their comic timing is absolutely brilliant, Kiki's voice is impressively versatile (think one part Ethel Merman, one part David Bowie), Herb is a helluva piano man, and the duo make it work in a way that will endear the most jaded of hipsters and the most pop-culture-impaired alike (in other words, you can bring Mom).

It's not about drag or alternative music or gay stuff or any one thing. It's just good music and good comedy. Clearly, Kiki & Herb care a lot about what they're doing, and it shows.

I first saw Justin Bond (pre-Kiki?) in New York at a HomoCorps music showcase set at The CBGB's Gallery, circa 1996-ish. She was dressed in smart slacks and a sleeveless spangle blouse, looking like an unhinged Joan Lunden as she introduced tattooed punk bands named after lewd sex acts. It was a lovely evening, made even lovelier by Bond's own performance of - I kid you not - an Olivia Newton John medley, drawing heavily on the ONJ classic "Deeper Than The Night".

After this night, my undying love for all things Kiki was born. Understandably.

During my time as a New York resident, I saw Kiki & Herb a number of times - I can't count the times I saw Justin/Kiki hosting theme nights at various East Village bars and clubs, which is made sadder by the fact that most of those clubs no longer exist. I saw Kiki & Herb's early shows at Flamingo East twice - at one show, I was the victim of the tablecloth/softshoe routine mentioned above.

Eventually, their show moved to a slightly ritzier club called Fez, where I saw them twice more, including one occasion in which I brought my best friend and my mother, who was visiting from the midwest. As Kiki began warbling "Exit Music for a Film", my mother smiled and said, "is she singing Radiohead?!" to which my friend's eyes bulged in shock that my mother could identify a Radiohead song (what can I say, I have a hip mom). Ironically, my mother sat through the entire show blissfully unaware that Kiki was not, technically speaking, a woman.

I don't consider this a lack of savvy on my mother's part. I consider it Justin Bond succeeding in what she sets out to achieve. It's not about the drag. It's about the characterization. It's about the performance. It's Tootsie without the de-wigging scene. It's The Crying Game without the money shot. It's not illusion because we're not invited to the other side of the mirage. Reality is irrelevant - as should be the rule of good entertainment.

Their show became larger and larger over the years, eventually graduating into an off-Broadway stint, a Christmas CD with Debbie Harry and Rufus Wainright, and a glorious swan song performance at Carnegie Hall, followed by a live recording of the event.

Oh, and they were in a Sigourney Weaver movie not too long ago - the film's okay, but the scene with Kiki & Herb is the closest you'll get to a home video performance, and their few minutes on film are typically fabulous.

And after all that, I thought the we were through with Kiki & Herb, and all the delicious chaos they brought to the world. I was wrong.

Earlier this very week, an e-mail from my sweetheart alerted me to a listing for two shows at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art on October 14, 2005: "An Evening with Kiki & Herb".

I experienced a minor yet noteworthy bout of mental collapse.

Said collapse was not soothed upon my attempt to hunt down tickets online, only to find - not at all to my surprise - that all online ticket sales had been sold out.

Here's where I started to get all Darwin-meets-Almost Famous.

I pulled out all the stops. I called the venue, which was closed (Columbus Day, natch). I posted a mewling ad on Craig's List. I e-mailed someone I knew whose boyfriend worked for a museum and mewled some more. I even shot a message off to Kiki & Herb's web site, on the off-chance that the folks who maintain their fan site might have some pointers on how I could score tix.

I was determined. I would not miss this show.

The next day, I felt reluctantly resigned. I did everything I could at such short notice, no need to cry over spilled martinis, life goes on, blah blah, etc. Still and all, I felt one last little nagging gnaw at the ankle of my tenacity (sorry about that last metaphor thingie, I don't quite get it either), so I called the venue once more, assuming it would only result in a bored college student sighing the words "sold out" with that ever-so-familiar blend of disdain and dispassion that I still attempt to recreate at my job every day, to varying levels of success and/or failure.

So I called. And the very friendly young woman who answered the phone informed me that there were two tickets left for the late performance, though the seats were not together. Sadly, yet I guess fortuitously, I'd have to attend the show on my own anyway, as my favorite yarn spinner would be casting off for the East Coast this weekend. I was sadly on my own, but perhaps it would work out for me in some merciful karmic twist.

I ended the call one 7th row ticket richer.

The next morning, I got a reply to my Craig's List ad from somebody offering to sell me a ticket for the late show. I heaved a tasty sigh of relief, knowing that I already had my ticket. 7th row. That's right.

And a bit later, I got another e-mail. From Kiki & Herb. They got my mewling note from earlier in the week. And, um, well...

I'm two more tickets richer now, and I will be seeing both of their shows this weekend - one of them as a guest of the performers.

I'm so excited my eyeballs could literally explode at any moment.

So, to add to all of the blather above about what wonderful performers Kiki & Herb are, I now must add that they're a couple of absolute sweethearts as well. As a longtime fan, I must invoke the Wayne & Garth mantra: I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!

Though on second thought, what the hell - after all the grief I went through to attend their show, I'm worthy enough. Even if I'm not, I'm going to see one of my favorite acts return from the dead in my own home town, and I learned one thing long ago:

Never look a ghost-horse in the mouth.


Anonymous Carrie said...

You freaking rock, Chris. Hope you enjoy the show. Sounds right up my alley. Shame I can't be in Chicago, dammit.

6:05 AM, October 14, 2005  
Anonymous Cameellie said...

You are the dawg of luckiness. I applaud your tenacity and envy your good fortune. Enjoy your evening and bask in nostalgia and deserved-ness.

10:46 AM, October 14, 2005  
Blogger Leslie said...

What great luck you have, Chris. Franklin gets to go to the fiber show in dank cool weather while you'll get to go to a great theater and see a class act - and you only have to pay once! Kikki & Herb sound like a truly memorable evening - enjoy!

1:44 PM, October 15, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kiki and Herb are painful. The only thing sadder then their show was the trashy gay jewish audience. Donate your money before wasting it on this show.

1:20 AM, December 20, 2005  
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