Gardenias in Their Hair: Joey Arias Honors Billie Holiday

Joey Arias giving us Billie Holiday / Photo by Kevin Yatarola

On Wednesday night Joey Arias, goddess of downtown drag performance-art cabaret, heroically risked nosebleed by venturing uptown, way past 14th Street, to Columbus Circle. The occasion was a glamorous and moving concert celebrating Billie Holiday’s centennial year, part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

The last time I wrote about Arias was a review of his bacchanalian 2012 Mayan apocalypse/Christmas show at Joe’s Pub. This new show, elegantly staged in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s spectacular Appel Room, was a more dignified affair, and a fitting honor to Holiday’s career and artistry.

In a demure (for Arias) gown and with Holiday’s signature gardenias in his hair—and wearing pieces of Holiday’s own jewelry—Arias sang a program mixing Holiday’s most charming and her most powerful songs: from “Them There Eyes” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on the one hand to “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit” on the other.

Arias has an enthralling voice, capable of many moods and styles, and one of his specialties is his take on Holiday. Clearly inspired by the late singer’s distinctive voice and sophisticated phrasing, his performances of her songs are always his own exquisite interpretations, never mere imitation. Fellow downtown chanteuse Bridget Barkan joined Arias for a duet of “God Bless the Child.” Her lush voice made an affecting counterpoint to Arias’ more focused delivery.

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Standing in front of the Appel Room’s immense picture window overlooking the city, Arias displayed a subtly effective showmanship. He conveyed his love of Holiday’s music, the fun of a festive, celebratory evening and, at turns, the crushing pathos of a song like “Strange Fruit” with his expressive face and sly, economical gesture. Subtle is not how I would normally describe Arias’ behavior on stage (and all the better), but here, as an ambassador for Holiday’s legacy and even for his own, as a legendary downtown artist crossing over, so to speak, for an uptown audience, he demonstrated his incomparable performance instincts.

He certainly did not stifle every dirty impulse, but that, too, honored Holiday’s life. She was a complex and human figure with well-known personal struggles; it does not serve her art to treat her legacy too preciously. There is no one better than Joey Arias to do justice to her complete life. (To that end: Arias is going on tour with a related Billie Holiday centennial concert. He’ll be at La Teatreria in Mexico City on March 25 and 26, at the Southbank Centre in London on April 7, and at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans on April 17.)

Backing Arias, Matt Ray led the excellent band from the piano, including Dana Lyn on violin, Yair Evnine on cello and guitar, Antoine Drye on trumpet, Danton Boller on upright bass and Will Terrill on drums. Drye deserves special mention for his several stylish solo breaks.

Craig McKay, a grandson of Holiday’s husband Louis McKay, introduced Arias and talked about his interest in sustaining Holiday’s legacy; he announced that was working to establish a Billie Holiday Foundation later this year.

Happy 100th birthday, Lady Day.