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Cabaret Articles

Queens of Cabaret
Evening Standard (London), Feb 3, 2005 by John Lyttle

Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman turn up for our interview at the Soho Theatre and immediately apologise for being tired. Small wonder. In the past 12 months the American duo have supported the Scissor Sisters on tour, shot a documentary film, completed a run of sold-out concerts at New York's Carnegie Hall, recorded a CD and are now about to appear at the Bloomsbury Theatre in a show titled Kiki Herb: Losers In Love, just in time for Valentine's Day. For Bond and Mellman are indeed the notorious Kiki Herb and that would suck a lot of energy from anyone.

Why notorious? You'd really have to have caught them in any of their three previous appearances in London to understand. Kiki Herb are what live comedy acts should ideally always be about control and loss of control, the balance between artistic order and evoked chaos. You'd simply have to see the 40-year-old Bond in red sequins and Pomeranian wig as the selfish, alcoholic, sixty-something chanteuse Kiki DuRane, baiting the crowd at the Vauxhall Tavern or aboard the HMS President and listen to her bark her way through a bizarre back catalogue of everything from Kylie's 'Can't Get Out You Out of Head' to (God help us) Gil Scott-Heron's 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' via Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' or the Wu- Tang Clan's 'Ghostface' to understand why we're not talking about just another drag act.

Imagine, for instance, if Dame Edna suddenly announced that bridesmaid Madge had been gang raped as a young girl. That's what Kiki confidentially tells us about her equally drunk and decrepit 'gay, Jew retard' pianist Herb as he bangs all sorts of strange noises out of the keyboard. The delusional diva also tells us how they met 'In a government-run facility for the mentally challenged in Western Pennsylvania' and after her third bottle of Canadian Club shares (well, slurs) the story of how her seven-yearold daughter, Coco, fell off a yacht in Monte Carlo and drowned: 'I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, where the hell can a kid go on the deck of a boat?' All merriment stops dead.

Then begins again as Kiki staggers centre stage and invites someone in the audience to kill President Bush.

Imagine Lily Savage encouraging the overthrow of Tony Blair. As Bond jokes, 'If we have you heading for the exit, that's good. That means we've done our job.' It speaks volumes about the zeitgeist that disgust brings big fans.

Kiki Herb are very famous among the famous. The likes of Lou Reed, Kevin Costner, Radiohead and Debbie Harry hotfooted it down to those Big Apple boltholes where piano bar meets the avant garde, and gifted the boys with the sort of underground reputation money can't buy.

Surprisingly, they say, the only star not to get the in-joke was Madonna.

She hired Bond and Mellman for her 39th birthday party and then proceeded to act more like Kiki than Kiki. 'She heckled me' Bond says dismissively. 'She's Madonna she had to be the centre of attention.

And the soul singer D'Angelo kicked me on the leg when I put a drink down on his table. He ripped my stockings and made my shin bleed. I went for him and had words with her. Not that I was ever a fan. I had one CD of hers and I went straight home and had the pleasure of throwing it out of the window.' A shame. The upside is that Bond says British audiences get Kiki Herb's confrontational cabaret in a way Madonna clearly doesn't. 'Well, you have a mainstream tradition of drag. I was discussing it with Paul O'Grady and Julian Clary recently.

I guess Paul and Julian are always going to be seen as non- threatening because the British are used to panto and music hall. There's an intellectual and social context here that we don't have in the States. There it's more one dimensional. They always have to get over the fact that it's a man in a dress. But if they come in with lower expectations to Kiki Herb, trust me, they leave with a broader understanding.' That broader understanding also applies to the artists who show up to check out what Kiki Herb have done to their material a borrowing considered both an honour and a test of nerve in certain hip circles. Mellman says no performer has ever complained to his face claiming Marc Almond's joy in their jittery version of his 'A Lover Spurned' as the standard. Kiki Herb don't do dick jokes and they don't do pop anthem parody either.

Poignancy is what they're after when Kiki tries to revive her faltering fortunes by doing music for young people. 'We respect the songs. I think of them as collage. It takes thought to get the Wu- Tang Clan, Pulp and Britney Spears to talk to one another. Kiki sings them because they mean something to her.' 'Listen,' Bond interrupts, 'tell him what Stephen Sondheim said about our Carnegie Hall concerts. Go on.' Mellman squirms but eventually obliges: 'Sondheim said it was the best formed musical he'd seen in 10 years.' Bond picks up the story. 'During the show I was so worried because there was this guy sitting near Sondheim laughing hysterically and throwing his arms about and generally being an asshole and I thought, 'Oh God, he's showing off because he's sitting near Stephen Sondheim.' Turns out I shouldn't have been embarrassed because it was Stephen Sondheim.' Bond claps his hands: 'Isn't that great! That's the effect Kiki and Herb have on people. Tell your friends.' Kiki Herb: Losers In Love, Sun 13-Wed 16 Feb, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, 15 Gordon Street, WC1 (020-7388 8822).

(c)2005. Associated Newspapers Ltd.. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.