It was a divinely beautiful sequence. Down the aisles of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater strode the Bowie State University Pep Band. They spread out in front of and on the stage and backed up Taylor Mac on a rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Five minutes earlier, I myself had been on that stage, summoned, along with the rest of the front-most rows, by Taylor Mac with the instruction to slow dance with a same sex partner. The rest of the audience was implored to do the same in the aisles. We were swaying to a re-purposed version of a Ted Nugent song about fag-bashing.
The second half of Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Abridged had begun with a version of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” which may have rocked the building more than she ever had been rocked before.
Part nightclub act, part concert, part downtown-NYC performance art piece, this was the only local performance of A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Abridged — and, at about two hours and forty minutes, it was, indeed, “abridged.” There is a 24-hour version, which will be performed, we learned, in June in Philadelphia. (That version, we were told, features some 260-plus songs.)
If you happen to get up that way around that time, I can’t recommend this show enough. It may not be for everyone; but if you’ve ever dug things like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Rocky Horror Show, the oeuvre of RuPaul Charles, the great American songbook, and resistance marches, I bet you’ll love it as much as I did.
In versions abridged and not, Taylor Mac explores 240 years of popular music, from 1776 through 2016. For the abridged version, he focused on songs extracted from the longer version which involve resistance.
(Note: At one point during the performance, Taylor Mac employed the pronoun “he” in self-reference, and so that is the pronoun I will use during this article.)
Activism as an instigator of progress emerged as a major theme of the night, as did, in a really sophisticated way, the importance of inclusiveness.
There were songs about women’s rights — a song from the early history of the country is introduced in the first part of the show. A version of “Freedom Highway” dealt with race.
A couple of women populate Taylor Mac’s band in positions (lead guitar, drums) which are routinely filled by men.
The aforementioned Bowie pep band was entirely African-American, but, if none of the cheerleader-type dancers were male, the band itself was integrated, with women carrying and playing instruments alongside the men.
It’s hard to think, though, of a type of music that would fit less with a rock-infused drag act than a marching band. I’ll admit it — I’ve cringed during the Macy’s parade as marching bands have played pop music.
But there was no incongruity on that stage. The disparate pieces fit beautifully. It was a profoundly moving demonstration of how elements which may seem incompatible can come together in a thrilling way. The band received two mid-show standing ovations from a grateful audience.
And, I believe, Taylor Mac (recipient of a MacArthur genius grant) was craftily making a point about artistic as well as societal inclusiveness, as well as delivering the best non-Bowie version of “Heroes” that I’ve ever heard. (And I’m hyper-critical of that song in any hands other than those of my Thin White Duke — don’t get me started on Moulin Rouge.)
A hallmark of the evening was the mashing-up of different songs. The evening began with “Amazing Grace” sung to a traditional tune most familiar as The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” (The Blind Boys of Alabama have also done “Amazing Grace” to that melody.) It ended with “Turn! Turn! Turn!” grafted over Henry Mancini’s theme to Peter Gunn.
It all works.
Another hallmark was an examination of lyrics; the deep dive into “Dixie” stood out on that score.
Taylor Mac began by promising that he would be serving a “radical faerie realness ritual sacrifice.” He also served magnificent musical accomplishment. His voice was stunningly strong.
Working with Music Director Matt Ray, who played piano, set the tempo before each number, sang back-up, and engaged in a bit of badinage, Taylor Mac fronted a truly spectacular band.
Viva DeConcini’s guitar solos took my breath away. The horns (Greg Glassman on trumpet, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone) were gorgeous. The rhythm section (Danton Boller on bass, Bernice “Boom Boom” Brooks on drums) and a violin (Dana Lyn) rounded out the crew.
The back-up singers were awesome, and were, thankfully, given time in the spotlight. While Thornetta Davis was sensational, it was Steffanie Christi’an who just blew me away. I will remember that name, and check out anything else she does, if I’m anywhere near it.
The costumes were designed by Machine Dazzle, who joined in the on-stage fun, making an appearance looking like a kind of pink mummy.
Although much of Taylor Mac’s observations between songs had to do with their content, he also tailored many remarks to our city. He noted that he had been warned that Washingtonians would be reluctant audience participants, although, when he brought onstage three men chosen because their attire suggested patriarchal conformity, the three were delightfully loose and game.
He also tweaked a critic from a local pub for what had been written about one of his New York performances, and got comic mileage out of the different pronunciations of “Bowie” in the names David Bowie and Bowie State University.
I’d never seen Taylor Mac before, but had read about him. He played the lead in the Foundry Theatre production of Good Person of Szechwan first at LaMama, later revived for a run at the Public Theater. (His leading man was Clifton Duncan, who acted locally before achieving New York success.)
Believe me, I’ll be back, whenever I get the opportunity. I hope he comes back here — soon and often.
Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Abridged has 1 performance at the Kennedy Center, on March 6, 2018.
Taylor Mac will perform his full 24 decade version of this show in two 12 hour performances at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Details and tickets.
Taylor Mac: A 24-Decade History of Popular Music: Abridged. Conceived, written, performed by Taylor Mac. Music Director/Arranger: Matt Ray. Costume Designer: Machine Dazzle. Lighting Designer: John Torres. Stage Manager: Jason Kaiser. Co-produced by Pomegranate Arts and Nature’s Darlings. Presented as a part of DIRECT CURRENT, the Kennedy Center’s celebration of contemporary culture. Reviewed by Christopher Henley.