Justin Vivian Bond: The Biploar Express
The downtown cabaret icon returns to Joe's Pub for an annual holiday concert.
"I don't like things unless they look like they're falling apart," Justin Vivian Bond says during The Bipolar Express, Bond's 2016 edition of what has become an annual holiday concert at Joe's Pub. V (Bond's chosen pronoun) is talking about a trip to Rome with guitarist NathAnn Carrera, during which they discovered they were "ruins queens," but the statement could easily apply to this show. Like the Basilica of Maxentius or the Colosseum, The Bipolar Express feels structurally unsound but is still completely unmissable.
We learn right off the bat that an entirely different program of old favorites had been planned, but was changed up after the November election. "I didn't feel like the other songs were saying what I wanted to say," V explains. Instead, the show now features 11 songs V has never before performed onstage. It's a risky choice that occasionally pays off in big ways.
The show opens strong with the late Leonard Cohen's final single, "You Want It Darker," which turns out to be an apt overture to an evening overflowing with black humor (there's an entire comedic passage about the Bond family's tendency to develop brain tumors). Unleashing a primal voice in the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young number, "Almost Cut My Hair," Bond delivers a dramatic crescendo culminating in a cathartic rock bellow. The slightly tailored lyric "But I'm not givin' an inch to fear/'Cause I made it through this year" receives the applause of a grateful and energized audience.
A brilliant interpreter of lyrics, Bond finds the hidden gloom in seemingly sunny songs like the Lindisfarne folk ballad "Meet Me on the Corner." With increasing urgency and even anger, Bond moves into the audience and sings the chorus directly to us: "Hey mister dream seller," V sings (and then shouts) with an accent on the "hey." This song directly precedes the funniest comedy bit in the show, in which Bond imagines canvassing for Hillary Clinton in rural Pennsylvania: "Hello," V says with a huge plastic smile, "I'm a trans woman and I just went to the bathroom in my car." The audience howls with laughter.
Bond spends much of the time between songs talking about V's family from rural Maryland, whose political inclinations somewhat differ from V's own. In an effort to connect with these roots, Bond has been listening to a lot of country music in Vantasia (a recently inherited Dodge minivan). For this show, Bond sings two Dolly Parton numbers: First is "Dumb Blonde," which is delivered as the subversive anthem it deserves to be. The next number is arguably the first seasonal song of the evening: "Mommie, Ain't That Daddy," about an alcoholic father begging for change outside a Goodwill, is a pre-"Christmas Shoes" gem of holiday depression that is milked for all it's worth. "Red State realness," Bond remarks at the song's conclusion.
Another high point of the show comes during a reenactment of highlights from the 1971 Sally Field hippie panic flick Maybe I'll Come Home in the Spring. V performs the theme song (originally sung by Linda Ronstadt) with authentic '70s TV movie flair, delivering the final note in a vacuuming freeze frame.
While this giant leap into new material yields some memorable moments, the rough edges still show: Bond is early on the attack in for several songs, accidentally singing into what should be an interlude (this is too bad since violinist Claudia Chopek has some gorgeous solos). A cheat sheet of lyrics occupies a downstage music stand; even then, some words arrive on Bond's tongue just a hair too late and are regularly garbled.
Bond seems aware of this admitting, "I was up very late last night…I should have been learning the words to these songs." We appreciate this honestly, which pervades the entire show, whether it is a non sequitur overshare or illuminating vocal inflections. You may tear up during the touching rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (featuring a sweet and intimate guitar accompaniment by Carerra). But after listening to Bond's witty kitchen table observations and anecdotes, you're far likelier to have tears in your eyes from laughter. All that considered, The Bipolar Express offers an unexpected dose of Christmas cheer. Catch it before it pulls out of the station.