Monday, March 26, 2007

Last August, I wrote a piece for The Onion A.V. Club's New York edition that never appeared online, so here it is. It was originally timed to Kiki & Herb's Broadway show. Thanks to Andy Battaglia for commissioning it.

Kiki & Herb Will Make You Die
A derelict drag duo takes on Broadway

These days, the “Great American Songbook” means something specific and very dated: songs from the 1920s and ’30s by Broadway composers (and some from Hollywood) that jazz and pop singers revisit to steal a bit of history, sophistication, and class. All can be conferred, however tentatively, by reworking the old reliables—just ask that old reprobate Rod Stewart.

Kiki DuRane is an old reprobate too, and though Stewart can laugh at himself, she’s also a lot funnier. The creation of the raspy singer/raconteur Justin Bond, “Kiki” is a lounge act, an over-the-top vocalist accompanied by pianist and joke-butt Herb (Kenny Mellman). The story goes that when Kiki & Herb first resurrected their act, they decided to concentrate on material more recent than "That's Entertainment" and focus instead on hits and semi-hits from indie-rock, hip-hop, and whatever else. It’s a tweaking of the approach used by standard piano-duo configurations, and Bond and Mellman treat their material with ruthless abandon. On Kiki & Herb Will Die For You, a recording of their 2004 “farewell” show at Carnegie Hall, they steal “Institutionalized” from Suicidal Tendencies and do a medley of Ryan Adams, Duke Ellington, and Prince. It’s as if they’re attempting to create a new, if supremely odd, version of the Great American Songbook.

“I think that’s what we’ve always tried to do,” says Mellman, during a break from preparations for Kiki & Herb Alive On Broadway, a new month-long show set to open uptown on Friday, Aug. 11. “The only way to make money [as a musician] now is publishing rights, so a lot of people don’t cover songs,” says Bond. “I don’t think people hear songs bare-bones. You don’t really get to examine songs, step outside and interpret. For me as a singer, it’s a delight to reveal how many contemporary writers write really great songs. Everyone who has heard one of our covers has been really amazingly generous with their praise. We’ve been very lucky. If someone was unhappy with what we did with their song, it might disturb me.”

One such fan is John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, whose song “No Children” was reworked on Kiki & Herb Will Die For You. “[Bond] sort of makes his persona a bridge between hard pathos and light burlesque,” Darnielle says. “Liza Minnelli’s never going to sing one of my tunes, but hearing Justin sing it is almost as sweet.”

The major difference, of course, is that Kiki & Herb are to some degree a goof on what Liza does, complete with a ridiculous back-story that includes, during especially infamous holiday shows, queasy tales of run-ins with Jesus and his manger. Still, Bond is adamant about his overriding intentions: “I’d hate to think anyone thinks we were taking the piss out of a song. I’m a little addle-pated, so I screw up lyrics sometimes. But we try to keep the integrity of the song.”

Is the constantly refilled bottle of whiskey that Kiki pours and drinks from onstage part of this addle-patedness, or maybe a cover for it? “Yes! Absolutely. It’s a win-win situation. Or lose-lose.”

“Yeah, that’s an Escher,” Mellman says.

“It’s a real brew,” assures Bond. “There’s definitely alcohol in the bottle. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Whatever the situation requires.”

“We’re not in our early 20s anymore,” Mellman notes.

Bond, who is 43, met Mellman, 37, in the early ’90s, when they began performing together under their own names. “We were doing lounge versions of rock songs in straight clubs in San Francisco,” says Bond. “I’ve always been a tranny on one level or another, but I wasn’t doing drag then. Our audience was always this weird sort of crowd that wasn’t necessarily gay. We’ve always played to music geeks.”

They kept that crowd when they became Kiki & Herb, and have been building in popularity ever since. Surely, though, moving up to Broadway has made them rethink their approach?

“I think it’s the exact opposite,” counters Bond. Aside from a stage set, a Kiki & Herb first (“I had this idea when I was stoned on my friend’s back porch in L.A.; next thing I know, producers are paying thousands of dollars to have my dream made real,” says Bond), the new show concedes little to the Great White Way. “Playing to a more mainstream audience makes me want to say more aggressively outrageous things,” says Bond. “When we play to our downtown audience, we can do more provocative or subversive material. We feel like it’s something they all know or are used to hearing. We’ve stuck to biographical stories for the characters. But as far as pushing buttons, I think it’s moreso in these shows. They’re darker than any shows we’ve ever done.”

Given Kiki’s predilection for introducing Herb as a “gay Jew ’tard” and turning tales of her drowned daughter Coco and the husband she attacked with a knife, that’s saying something. Still, for all their horrifying history, Kiki & Herb have managed to emerge less bruised than some of the artists they’ve covered. “Why is Gil Scott-Heron in jail on drug charges, anyway?,” Bond wonders about the poet-singer whose “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a set staple. “Some people do drugs and end up on Broadway.”