Ann Powers, Pop And Jazz Guide, The New York Times, November 16, 2001
A selective listing by critics of The Times of noteworthy pop and jazz concerts in the New York metropolitan region this weekend. * denotes a highly recommended concert.
”JOHN KELLY’S SHINY HOT NIGHTS: MORE SONGS OF JONI MITCHELL,” Fez, 380 Lafayette, at Great Jones Street, East Village.
There’s drag, and then there’s transformation through spiritual osmosis, and that’s what John Kelly accomplishes with this tribute to the queen of the singer-songwriters. Every blue note, every toss of the golden mane captures Ms. Mitchell’s singular aura and communicates why a man like Mr. Kelly would fetishize her persona rather than playing just another variation on Joan Crawford. Magnificent.
Preview: Shiny Hot Nights–More Songs of Joni Mitchell, Time Out New York, November 8, 2001
Joni Mitchell has been popping up all over New York for the past decade or so, turning in a song at Wigstock one day. guesting on Lucy Sexton’s performance-art talk show another. Astute observers may have noticed that Joni’s shoulders looked a little broad or that her hands were on the large side for a small Canadian songbird. Turns out this Joni actually was protean actor John Kelly, sporting a stringy wig and packing a dulcimer. Now. Kelly has turned his occasional stints into a 90-minute show that pretty much covers Milchell’s entire career.
Unlike your run-of-the-mill Judy Garland impersonators, whose fascination for tragedy can come across as morbid schadenfreude, Kelly is an accomplished actor with deep empathy for his model and all of her career’s phases. He dispatches the hits—”Woodstock”, “Chelsea Morning,” “Big Yellow Taxi’s—early on, before tackling more recent (and obscure) material. Hearing ”Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” from 1991 ‘slight Rnk Home, is akin to a complete rediscovery for instance, especially since Kelly renders Mitchell’s peculiar vocalese with uncanny accuracy.
But what really makes Shiny Hot Nights memorable is that it’s peppered with anecdotes about the songs’ backgrounds or an influential seventh-grade teacher, all taken from actual Mitchell interviews. Every time, Kelly captures the singer’s unique charm, punctuating lines with odd little chuckles that feel as if the singer was surprised by her own loopiness. The show’s slightly surreal tone is reinforced by the presence of Georgia O’Keefe (Zecca Esquibel) on the electric piano. It makes sense when you see it. Really.
Standing in an intriguing gray zone where nostalgia, reinvention and performance art intersect, Shiny Hot Nights is a warm tribute in which affection never becomes fawning. But above all, it is a graceful encounter between two artists stubbornly pursuing their own idiosyncratic muses.
David Warner, Kelly’s Girl, Philadelphia City Paper, October 24, 2002
What do you call a man who’s channeled painter Egon Schiele, composer Robert Schumann, the Mona Lisa, Maria Callas’ daughter and a transvestite trapeze artist?
“I’m a chameleon,” says performance artist John Kelly.
No kidding. But he’s best known for one alter ego in particular — that of singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell.
Kelly first appeared as Mitchell in 1984 at NYC’s now-defunct Wigstock festival, where he sang a rendition — lyrics slightly altered for the occasion — of “Woodstock.” He went on to develop two highly successful performance pieces based around her music: Paved Paradise: The Songs of Joni Mitchell in 1997, and 2001’s Shiny Hot Nights: More Songs of Joni Mitchell, which comes to the Annenberg Center next week. His impersonation — or, to be more precise, his habitation — of Mitchell is astonishing: Not only does his formidable vocal range rival the diva’s own, he also manages in some intangible way to invoke her essence. He could sing these songs straight, so to speak — out of Joni drag — and it would be effective. But when he sings in her persona, complete with blond wig, VG-8 guitar and dulcimer, he creates something else altogether: a multilayered, gender-blurred performance event at once mesmerizing and funny and moving. You get, in a sense, two artists for the price of one.
Or maybe, considering Kelly’s polymorphic talents, you get something like 10. He not only acts, sings and creates solo and ensemble multimedia works, he’s a dancer/choreographer (he studied with American Ballet Theater), a painter (Parsons School of Design) and a videographer. He’s won Bessies, Obies, a Guggenheim and a Rockefeller. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici turned several of Kelly’s poems into a song cycle, which Kelly performed. He’s played Broadway (the Irish counter-tenor role in James Joyce’s The Dead) and opened (in his Joni Mitchell guise) for Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia tour. Last fall, the performer’s many faces were celebrated in John Kelly (2Wice Books/Aperture), a book of photos and essays.
“I’m not one persona,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in Chelsea. “If I were one persona my career might look different.”
That career, he suspects, may be too multifaceted for popular culture to bear.
“We like everything to be spelled out. We’re wired to pigeonhole, to distrust our artists in general — and to mistrust an artist who does more than one thing.”
He’s been particularly aware of that pigeonholing tendency when it comes to the entertainment industry’s treatment of drag.
“If [drag] is too complex, it forces people to deal with a more complex equation — lots of buttons are being pushed, your perception button, your assumption button. But when it came out of the closet in the U.S., it got watered down. Hollywood co-opted it or did it within “ha-ha’ quotes like Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire…. Our culture’s a jumble of contradictions when it comes to stuff like gender performance.”
An interesting contradiction amidst the jumble is that the culture’s fascination with drag has helped draw attention to his Joni Mitchell portrayal. That, and the fact that she’s Joni Mitchell — a much more well-known figure than, say, Egon Schiele.
“Joni is my Bolero,” says Kelly. “My connection to the popular audience.”
That said, he sees a link between her and other figures he’s portrayed, whom he describes as characters “going through some kind of struggle.” With Mitchell, “the struggles occur in each of the songs. Each is a little soliloquy or a play, these little dramas that she invents and then gets to play the character.”
Kelly, who is in his mid-40s, found himself drawn to Joni Mitchell’s music when he was “a kid in Jersey City” and his two older sisters were listening to her records. “Just hearing Blue and Ladies of the Canyon — it was all so new. Wow, this experience, this voice! There’s a world out there!”
Decades later, during the run of Paved Paradise at Fez in NYC, he found himself performing for Mitchell herself.
“It was pretty intense. I didn’t want to see her [in the audience]. I made her sit in the back.” Strategic seating didn’t help, though. The crowd knew she was there. During the concert, says Kelly, “they were eyeballing her every chance they got.”
But there was no need to worry. In a backstage meeting after the show that has since become legend thanks to coverage in The New York Times and other outlets, the two Jonis bonded, the original bestowing a dulcimer upon her acolyte. Mitchell, interviewed by the Times, said she’d expected a parody. Instead, Kelly’s homage made her cry — twice.
Shiny Hot Nights opens at the Annenberg on Halloween. Theatergoers are being encouraged to come in costume that night, so Kelly may find himself facing a whole audience full of Jonis.
“That would be very funny,” says Kelly. “Maybe some Carlys or a Sinéad or two would be nice.”
Steve Wiecking, A Case Of Her: John Kelly Is Joni Mitchell–And She Couldn’t Be Happier, Seattle Weekly, September 10, 2003
SURELY THERE ARE many disparate creative paths to follow once you’ve studied art, ballet, modern dance, trapeze, mime, and voice both here and abroad—it’s just that singing “Both Sides Now” in Joni Mitchell drag isn’t the avenue most people would expect you to take. But then, John Kelly didn’t have any expectations, either, when he first began performing as the legendary Mitchell back in the ’80s, after friends in New York’s East Village dreamed up the now iconic Wigstock drag fest and the young punk realized it was the perfect outlet for his lifelong admiration. Though he’s worked steadily as a non-Joni singer, visual artist, and actor, it’s as music’s goddess poet that he’s most acclaimed, winning the devotion of critics and fans—like Natalie Merchant, who asked him to be her opening act on a recent concert tour.
Perhaps less comparable to other drag performers than to experimental artists like sound collagist John Moran, Kelly seems to be searching for the point at which the odd becomes the oddly moving; what seems like a joke is given meaning through ingenuous expression. His Shiny Hot Nights (Sept. 11-14, On the Boards) is a “staged concert” in which Kelly inhabits Joni on guitar and dulcimer, and is backed by pianist Zecca Esquibel—who in turn plays the part of the late Georgia O’Keeffe. “Joni was friends with Georgia, so I figured I may as well extend the character conceit to the rest of the people onstage,” says Kelly. He talked to us on the phone recently about what we should expect from such an experience, why he’s tired of camp, and, of course, how it felt to finally meet the Master.
Seattle Weekly: Did you ever think of just singing Joni as yourself, or was drag a natural outlet for you?
John Kelly: When I first started doing drag, it was a way to—I don’t know if I can curse in your paper—it was the most fucked-up thing I could think of doing in 1979 [laughs]. And [drag] still wasn’t out of the closet. It wasn’t watered down—it was a more potent, socially annoying thing to do. I was living in the East Village painting and doing drugs and being crazy. And I thought this was a really crazy thing to do for channeling one of my demons. Basically, it’s an acting role, you know? It’s a challenge to sing her material with a certain kind of accuracy and to color my voice in a certain way, and it’s also a challenge to transform myself to look like the essence of her.
How difficult is it to sing like her?
It’s always a challenge because I’m singing music from all periods of her career. Early on, she was a soprano, and then, as she smoked, her voice got progressively lower and lower. So I’m belting in a high tenor-type voice, I’m singing countertenor music, which goes through the register break, and I’m singing a lot of mezzo-soprano notes.
You have a big following in New York, but for those of us who haven’t experienced this—you’re not doing it camp, correct?
No, not all—it’s an homage. It’s not camp at all. If anything, I try to go on a fine line between irony and poetry or pathos. I mean, sure—it’s ironic, and it’s funny, and part of it is very strange and ridiculous. But at the same time, I try to move people, I try to inhabit the songs, and I try to let the power of the songs be the thing that ultimately emerges.
Do you feel that because you’re in drag people make assumptions about what you’re doing?
Yeah, absolutely, especially in the United States. Americans have a hard time dealing with ambiguity—we want to know what something is, and that’s it. It’s a very limited, unimaginative way of functioning. It’s a lot different in Europe and other countries, I find, because there’s a history of actors and performers doing cross-gender roles. It’s part of their wiring. Whereas here, we immediately relegate it to the column of “camp,” or “no craft,” or “wants to be a woman.” It’s a mind-set that’s very limited, and I try to break that.
Have you had any really bad receptions?
Generally, the audiences I get are really amazing. It’s a cross section, from baby boomers to kids in their early 20s, [and] I’m turning them on to Joni Mitchell’s music, which is great. But there have been a couple of situations where it’s been very dicey. One time I was opening for Natalie [at] the Hard Rock Hotel [in Las Vegas], and it was total meathead land—the Neanderthal crowd had gotten in there. And Natalie was in the wings telling them to shut up, and there were people in the audience screaming “She-male!” It was really kind of horrible. That was like the Roman Coliseum.
What was it like meeting Joni for the first time?
It was a very quiet thing. I was backstage after this crazy night where all the audience knew she was there, and as she got up to come backstage they were yelling, “Real thing! Real thing!” And I’m backstage seeing this woman walk toward me down the hall, and we just basically hugged each other for a while. Because, you know, she’s not a fool—she recognizes the real goods when she sees them. And I’m not in any way trying to flatter myself, I’m just saying that I did her good that night. “Shadows and Light”—she was really blown away by that. She was standing up yelling “Bravo!” And she said she cried four times. It was a very strange, surreal moment. It was like sculpting for Michelangelo.
Ned Vizzini, Listings, NYPress, October 16, 2001
If you’re struggling to make films in this city (and if you’re not struggling, you’re doing it wrong), a networking get-together and anniversary party might help you this week. Neither is strictly confined to filmmakers, either; if you act, write or just have a weakness for skinny men who do, you will be welcomed.
Wednesday brings the second NY Film Gang meeting to the West Village. The NY Film Gang is a nascent collection of young indie professionals who gather every week to showcase short films and drink in a Russian restaurant/club called Neva (28 7th Ave. S. at Leroy St., 243-3166). Funny that indie nerds would use Neva; its Russian-ness generally guarantees that patrons who don’t groove to techno are shamed into the downstairs lounge. But a social comeuppance is good every once in a while, and after the Film Gang meeting from 7-9 p.m., there will be a night of 80s/new-wave music called “Tainted Love,” featuring at least some indie guys dancing.
When the first Film Gang meeting went down last week, organizer (and “Tainted Love” DJ) Lee Sobel was showered with support. “We got some press written up in Hollywood Reporter, and I really just put this thing together a week ago,” he says. “We had about 35 people.”
This week, the Film Gang is showing the trailer for Ross Byron’s Fender Saves the World. “I couldn’t tell you what that is about,” says Lee. “I mean, the first month, I just took in anybody who wanted to show their film. We don’t show anything longer than 30 minutes, though.” Also screening is Twelve Twisted Tricks, a contemporary film noir looking to raise funding. The NY Film Gang night is free at Neva; it runs every Wednesday at 7 p.m., and Lee Sobel wants you to know that his e-mail address is email@example.com.
…Regarding the more venerable institutions of indie film, the Film-Maker’s Cooperative turns 40 this weekend, and celebrates with a four-night festival and party at the Pioneer Theater. The Cooperative has a long history (40 years, remember?) of breaking avant-garde artists like John Waters and Andy Warhol, and they intend to continue in this tradition, but with offices nine blocks from the WTC they need your help, financial and otherwise.
Fortunately, the lineup for the 40th birthday party is pretty enticing. On Friday George and Mike Kuchar present; they were responsible for Eclipse of the Sun Virgin (1967), I Was a Teenage Rumpot (1960) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965; it shows a cyborg-slave giving birth to a baby robot). These underheralded kings of underground moviemaking hail from the Bronx; they are a lot less annoying and self-involved than John Waters and Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger), and their movies are shorter–Fleshapoids is only 43 minutes long.
“We have new work from Mike Kuchar premiering Friday night,” says Film Coop Director M.M. Serra. “It includes I Face the Night, a brand-new 20-minute teleplay, in which, let’s see here: ‘The sun sets on the sprawling metropolis, while the deep velvet curtain of life rises on the populace, now stranded on a dark stage littered with guilt and regret.’ How appropriate is that, huh?”
The Friday night festivities kick off at 8:30 p.m., and after the Kuchar movies are shown there will be a reception. Evenings of film continue through Monday, with John Zorn curating a program of works featuring his music on Saturday at 9 p.m. Expect receptions after every event. All this takes place at the Pioneer Theater (155 E. 3rd St., betw. Aves. A & B, 254-3300); tickets are $8.50 per night.
…Also this weekend, a living legend comes to New York, but he needs a little background. In the mid-1980s, when urban black music was starting the bull run that would ultimately land it in Japan and Russia, a lot of people (especially those in Washington, DC) weren’t digging the hornless, lyrically heavy hiphop that was coming out of New York. They preferred the no less ridiculously named Go Go.
Go Go originated in DC, and it sounded like James Brown with more percussion–the closest it came to mainstream success was EU’s 1988 offering “Da Butt,” which is now available on a various artists compilation called Monster Booty. The closest it came to a superstar was Chuck Brown, who has not slowed one bit since his flirtation with the big time (1978’s “Bustin’ Loose” went to R&B #1) and who rolls into Village Underground this Saturday. Brown comes equipped with second-generation Go Go act 911 and a slew of devoted fans.
The main selling point here is that, as with a George Clinton show, you get your money’s worth. Older people love to get onstage and prove that they’re still on top, and Chuck Brown is no exception–the last time he was here he played for almost six hours. This Saturday he has one show at 8:30 p.m. and one at midnight; tickets are $15, all ages. Basically, you’re never going to see James Brown because he’s too dusted, so you might as well see Chuck and wonder where music might be if Go Go, not hiphop, had won the crossover wars. At Village Underground (130 W. 3rd St., betw. 6th Ave. & MacDougal St., 777-7745).
…Also on Saturday, as often happens in this world, a gifted man comes to New York with a shtick that doesn’t really live up to his far-reaching and varied talents. The man is John Kelly. His shtick is dressing up like Joni Mitchell and singing her songs.
“The two major artistic figures in my life were Maria Callas and Egon Schiele, the Viennese expressionist painter who died in 1918,” says Kelly, who has opened for Natalie Merchant and staged works at Carnegie Hall. “I always thought [Joni Mitchell] would be an interesting thing to do because I knew I could sing her music and I definitely had a heart connection.”
John becomes Joni by simply by putting on a wig and dress, sitting with an acoustic guitar plugged into his VG-8 synthesizer, and hitting her soprano notes in his own countertenor. This Saturday, he’s going to do about 16 Mitchell songs, a career-spanning retrospective lasting 90 minutes. He’s had plenty of experience–his first Mitchell gig was at the Pyramid Club (101 Ave. A., betw. 6th & 7th Sts., 473-7184) in 1985 during the inaugural Wigstock–so don’t expect any mistakes, out-of-character moments or originals.
“No, no, never. I put banter between songs–some of it is her actual words, some of it is stuff that I have come up with. But basically I stay in character.”
In addition to his five dates as Joni, beginning this Saturday at 8 p.m. and running every weekend until Nov. 17, John has just released his autobiography, John Kelly, which covers his life as a choreographer, director, performer, Guggenheim fellow and Broadway actor. You can find it on Amazon.com and in Barnes & Noble. His show is called “Shiny Hot Nights: More Songs of Joni Mitchell” and it will cost you $20 at Fez (380 Lafayette St. at Great Jones St., aka E. 3rd St., 533-7000).
Oh, and if the onstage entertainment isn’t enough for you, keep an eye out for the Joni Mitchell nuts who attend John’s show. “I’m not the biggest fan in the world,” he says. “There are other people who are ridiculously fanatical. They’re like Trekkies, you know?”