This is whom people love at Christmas time: the baby Jesus, Santa Claus and Joey Arias. Not necessarily in that order.
Before an adoring, joyfully rowdy, sold-out audience at Joe’s Pub on Friday, singer/performance artist Arias intended to usher in the Mayan apocalypse-the show was called “The End of the World”-but, since we’re all still here, it stands to reason that the Mayans might have been wrong.
So, I suppose that makes it a Christmas show retroactively. A Christmas show on a stage decorated with an eight-foot tall, bright-orange, glitter-and-tinsel-trimmed Mayan calendar. A gorgeous and brilliantly-executed piece of scenery created by Machine Dazzle, multi-disciplinary downtown artistic genius. Machine is also one of the amazing Pixie Harlots, who, in addition to Narcissister (link NSFW, but unmissable), were guest performers at the show. Arias was backed by a four-piece band led from the piano by Thomas Bartlett, among them special guest Cornelius Loy on the theremin.
Arias came out in a burlap dress, demonstrating his humility. Just kidding! (Not about the burlap; that really happened!) It was an ironic joke, because the whole crowd at Joe’s was well aware that he usually dresses not only fashionably, but in couture-often designed by his good friend Thierry Mugler, who wrote one of the songs Arias performed in the show. When he changed out of the burlap, it was, indeed, into a couture gown (though not by Mugler) that was mostly see-though below his signature corseted wasp waist. As the show got boozier, Arias began interacting more flirtatiously with the audience. At one point he hiked up the dress, squatted down, put his crotch in the face of someone in the front row and screamed “Look!” This was pretty funny anyway, but more so because the fur cuff at the bottom of the hiked-up dress actually covered his crotch up more than the sheer fabric of the dress falling normally.
He opened the playful, informal show by introducing himself as Billie Holiday. Fans know Arias for his expert mimicry of Holiday’s distinctive voice and sophisticated jazz phrasing. He sang Holiday’s God Bless the Child, changing the lyrics at one point to address the audience: “God bless all you fuckers.” Later on, Arias sang White Christmas in the voice of Holiday. Throughout the theremin solo during that song, he pantomimed riding a horse, and, since he truly knows what the Christmas spirit is all about, he quipped, “I like you Santa Claus. Don’t touch my ass” as the song was ending. God bless us all, every one.
The other Christmas number came courtesy of the Pixie Harlots. They performed a sultry dance number to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “The Power of Love,” a Christmas power ballad (not to be confused with the Celine Dion or the Huey Lewis and the News songs of the same name). As they danced in front of the Mayan calendar, they revealed that the Mayan god’s face at the center covered a secret compartment containing a pizza.
In many of the songs, Arias used his unique jazz scat style of ethereal, high-pitched vocalization. It’s a genuinely masterful technique, and he’s a gifted musician. While singing Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, there were moments when Arias’ scat vocals were indistinguishable from Bartlett’s synthesizer and Loy’s theremin.
Arias sang his late friend Klaus Nomi’s Nomi Song. Nomi was a trained operatic countertenor, which Arias is not, and he declared it “a really fucking hard song to sing” when he finished. No matter the difficulty, he crushed the performance.
Someone in the audience recorded Nomi Song and put it on YouTube. That person’s other videos of the show are here: the Pixie Harlots (including the pizza), White Christmas (including the horsey dance), and Kashmir.
If this review seems breathless and enthusiastic, it’s because Arias consistently elicits that reaction. He’s an incandescent performer and a force of nature. Although, not the kind of force of nature that leads to world-wide cataclysm. Sorry, Mayans.