Joey Arias

Slide, June 21

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Jeremy Brennan (obscured), Elena Gatilova & Joey Arias. Photo: Robert Knapman/SX magazine.

                                                                                                                                                         New York drag artist Joey Arias was the fourth of a quadrella of contrasting divas in seven days. Cassandra Wilson’s encyclopedia of groove-based understatement (with a sumptuous contralto as the cover) led to Barb Jungr’s masterful one-two routine of emotional king-hits and knockabout humour, and then Kristin Chenoweth’s confection of tweeness soaked in sugar and roasted in honey.

While they all shared a certain vigour, Arias was the diva in decline: a vision of fading splendour with a voice like a cracked cathedral window.

Ably accompanied by local pianist Jeremy Brennan, Arias channelled Billy Holiday without impersonating her. In her last years Holiday’s very fragility compounded the trauma of her songs. Arias’s character, more fragile still, carried visual hints of past glories, while a dark vulnerability seeped through the voice’s brittleness. His oddity is the dichotomy between the impact of this vulnerability and the brassiness of the drag act.

Don’t Explain exemplified how his voice’s breaking up could amplify emotion even while entangled with a sly sense of send-up. Similarly Them There Eyes jumbled sadness and humour, and All Of Me, which began with lascivious audience interplay, showed Arias’s phrasing could be impeccable.

Beyond the Holiday canon the relentless riff of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir topped the surprises, matched by the contortions of burlesque artist/aerialist Elena Gatilova, who returned for the Arias-penned Sex Is Beautiful. A stripped-down reading of Cream’s White Room concentrated its hallucinogenic properties. A Hard Day’s Night stood out, the original bouncing rock replaced by an insistent shuffle groove from Brennan against which Arias delivered the lyric with definitive world-weariness.

Just over half-way through he stripped to corset and suspenders, and by the time he reached You’ve Changed in the encores a sadness of a different sort was implicit. The drag-act format may have, by convention, demanded the overt sexuality, yet something much more potent was at work with the original twilight diva persona.

Slide Cabaret Festival: until July 4.