Joey Arias seemed to be having the time of his life Sunday night at the end of last month at his sold-out show at Joe’s Pub, a twinbill with Australian singer/personality Paul Capsis. Arias’ firebrand lead guitarist and musical director Viva DeConcini was also having a ball, especially with her effects pedals, shifting deviously from one layer of whoosh and wail to another over the steady drums of Ray Rizzo, Mary Feaster’s melodic bass and Mara Rosenbloom’s characteristically judicious, elegant piano lines. Titled Rock & Roll Fantasy, the show was something of a departure for Arias, who’s best known as a jazz stylist, one of the few men alive who can channel Billie Holiday. “I feel like I’m at CBGB’s!” he grinned, with the authority of somebody who goes back that far and actually went to the place during its heyday. Maybe with Klaus Nomi, whom he worked with, and told a lascivious anecdote about, a naked and aroused Jean-Michel Basquiat walking out of Nomi’s bathroom in that one.
Considering how funny Arias’ act is, would it be unfair to give away the jokes? In this case, probably not – he most likely won’t be using any of these in the near future, anyway. He and the band opened with Purple Haze, Arias winding it up by vocalizing the backward-masked effects on the album, then harmonizing way, way up in his falsetto against the feedback echoing from DeConcini’s amp. The only thing he missed was the chance to wail, “‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy!”
A little later, he brought some Nomi-esque drama to Cream’s The White Room, evoking a hallucinatory, alien character, maybe locked away in a padded cell. Otherwise, Arias got plenty of laughs for what he didn’t do. When he reached the big crescendo on the chorus of Bowie’s Life of Mars, he didn’t budge from his midrange. Likewise, as the show wound out, he mumbled his way through Robert Plant’s faux-orgasmic vocalese on a couple of Led Zep radio hits as DeConcini wowed the audience with her flashy flights and string-wrenching bends. And in a departure from all the campy hijinks and theatrics, he brought an unexpected somberness and plaintiveness to the show with a lone Lady Day cover. As one audience member pondered during a recent Arias appearance at Pangea, how would his act go over in a mainstream jazz club? Would the black eyeliner, and the bling, and the garters distract from how otherwise unselfconsciously affecting, and distinctive, and purist a jazz singer Arias is?
Where Arias was making a stylistic depsrtuere, Capsis is all about the rock. Decked out as Amy Winehouse, he did a spot-on impersonation both vocally and jokewise, at one point practically drooling over someone’s food. His take on Janis Joplin was just as evocative, all frenetic and panting and breathless. Later on, after a change into a gold lame Elvis suit, he made the missing connection between the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams Are Made of These and the Doors’ People Are Strange. And the best song of the night might have been a chillingly expansive take of Patti Smith’s Pissing in a River: it was as if the ghost of Richard Sohl was wafting from the piano on that one. Arias is at Pangea (Second Ave between 11th and 12th Sts) tonight, August 3 at 7:30 PM, back to doing his drag jazz chanteuse thing; cover is $25 and since it’s a small place, early arrival is a good idea.