Photo by: Ryan Montgomery
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that good burlesque is notoriously difficult to pull off. Well, it’s maybe not universally acknowledged by people in mediocre burlesque troupes, something that San Francisco seems to be absolutely lousy with, but it really should be. Good burlesque acts objectively look like simple things to do, and the onstage attitude of a really cool burlesque performance – sexy, aggressively coy and more than a little art-damaged – seems eminently capturable. If, at the end of the day, all it really takes to pull off is a pair of fishnets and precisely the right pose and how hard can it be?
Answer: pretty fracking hard.
When Aria Entertainment teamed up San Franciso’s Vau de Vire Society with the Eric McFadden Trio and whole host of special guests at the DNA Lounge, they put on a pretty conclusive demonstration of the correct way to do burlesque. Vau de Vire was largely born out of the Bay Area’s thriving circus arts community and comes off like a punk rock take of Cirque du Soleil if it were performed at a strip club.
The show was centered around the band, with Vau de Vire slinking DNA Lounge’s industrial-chic staircases to do their act for a song or two before retreating backstage. When onstage they were a visual treat – girls in ornately revealing gothic costume writhed along the railings, and a lithe guy in loincloth, face covered in glitter, spun three plates on sticks in each hand.
Everything Vau de Viere does looks effortless. This effortlessness is what separates the good burlesque from the bad. When it looks like the dancers are sweating, it lends an air of desperation to the act and things quickly get a little sad. Actually, that’s not quite true, things don’t just get a little sad. It’s either supremely confident or painful to watch. It’s either Vegas or community theatre – there’s no Branson, Missouri when it comes to burlesque and Vau de Vire could play The Strip like it was nothing.
This isn’t to say that when it was exclusively the band onstage, things suddenly got dull. The Eric McFadden Trio, featuring James Whiton on bass and Paulo Baldi (who also plays with Cake) on drums, is a monstrous power-trio. McFadden himself is an imposing stage presence – dreadlocks down to his chest, trademark bowler hat perched on his head, arms covered in tattoos. Wearing a dapper red shirt and unbuttoned black vest handing loose around his torso, he looks like a voodoo priest leading the band at a semi-formal vampire wedding.
Eric’s music starts from a place of punked-up swampy blues with a twinge of gothic metal, but from there quickly starts to go all over the place. The band jumps from groovy metal riffs to country rave-ups with astonishing consistency. What unites the divergent styles is both a consistent heaviness and McFadden’s virtuoso guitar playing. McFadden can play guitar like Eric Clapton if Clapton never became so famous that he could do whatever he wanted which, I guess, was to play old blues tunes with the guys he listened to when he was a teenager. When he wants to, McFadden can shred like Eddie Van Halen or do a mean Joe Walsh impression, but what’s great about the band is that, for the most part, he showed a lot of restraint. McFadden plays guitar like someone who has nothing to prove until a moment, ever so often, when he decided to teach a master class in shredding for about 30 seconds a time.
The rest of the band has similar attitude of generally laying back before flashing the audience with their outrageous instrumental mastery. Whiton and his stand-up bass are especially impressive. He managed to get a brutal tone out of his stand-up that I’ve only heard Les Claypool even come close to matching. Not only that but he did a number of things with the stand-up bass that I’ve never seen anyone even attempt before. For example , he used a wah pedal while bowing his bass. It sounded great and, on the surface, doesn’t seem like such a revelatory move – but I’ve never even heard of someone making the combination. When he took that combo and started layering counterpoint figures with a looping pedal and then throw a sea of dissonant harmonies over that, it was one of the highlights of the show.
While it was a treat every time the Vau de Vire would come back out and do a trapeze act or have someone whip roses out of another performer’s teeth from across the room, what really made the show were all the special guests. Gabby La La came out and fit her sitar so seamlessly in with the band’s sound that it begged that question as to why the sitar isn’t considered as integral to blues rock as the electric guitar. The Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin, with her shock of bright blue hair, joined Gabby on stage to duet on slow, mournful version of Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi.” Stripped of its glossy production, its turns out to be a really pretty song.
Sure, it’s a ridiculous scene but it all kind of fit together as part of big, post-modern cabaret show – with one surprise coming after another. And let me just say that to make sense of a lead singer of the Go-Go’s dueling with a sitar player on a cover of a Lady Gaga song on the same stage where, only moments earlier, two girls in leather bikinis were doing a precisely choreographed dance number with a whip . . . is no small feat.