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Review of Gorey End Live at UCLA by Smilin' Jack Ruby

The combination concocted by the Quartet and the Lillies is a Victorian madman's mix, something that has to be witnessed to be believed, and a Gorey tale indeed.

the program for the performance (production?) of The Gorey End from The
Tiger Lillies and the Kronos Quartet, comes this anecdote from Tiger
Lilies vocalist, accordion/piano player and songwriter, Martyn Jacques:

"While on tour I was told I had received a funny letter from someone
called Edward Gorey and he thought I was the 'cat's pyjamas.' He said
he had a lot of unpublished work and in due course he sent it to me in
a large cardboard box. It was with a great sense of honour that I set
about turning this working into the collection of songs.

He
also sent me a stone in a saucer saying if I stared at it long enough
it would turn into a frog. Sadly I never got to meet him as he died
just before I was due to fly out to Cape Cod for a visit, but I hope I
have captured something of his wonderful and unique vision of the world.

I'm still staring at the the stone..."

Trying
to explain to someone who Edward Gorey (born in 1925) was isn't the
easiest thing in the world to do. What, you never saw Mystery? Oh, well
there goes that. How about the production design of the Broadway
version of Dracula from 1977? Not that either? What about those
oh-so-ironic birthday/Christmas/Halloween cards you can find at Borders
or Barnes & Noble that feature bears, the ironic death of children
and the pinch-faced, yet judgemental/mildly innocent young virgins? No?
Well...hm.

Not the easiest thing in the world, though even
some who call themselves fans of Gorey know Amphigorey and The
Gashlycrumb Tinies, but not much beyond that. Poet, illustrator,
playwright, production/costume designer and Gothic dark humorist Edward
Gorey was an amazing fellow and his death in April of 2000 was a true
tragedy to an off-beat segment of society that still mourns his passing
three years later. Gorey was a founding member of the Poets Theater
alongside such notables as Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery and his
illustrations proved so popular, you can find them on everything from
lunch boxes to tote bags the world over now.

Get the CD!This
year, to celebrate the life and work of Gorey, experimental musical
acts The Tiger Lilies (based in London) and the Kronos Quartet (based
in San Francisco) teamed up for a project entitled The Gorey End (now
available as a recording on EMI Classics, which you can get here),
which had its U.S. premiere on October 28th at Royce Hall on the UCLA
campus here in Los Angeles. A crazy night by anyone's standards -
including the many gothically-dressed Halloween revelers who were
getting an early start - which also saw a number of ticket holders
running for the exit (likely subscribers who had no idea what they were
getting into) only a few minutes into their combined set. The Kronos
Quartet? Surely you jest. How could they possibly offend? I am certain
Gorey, who made a career out of skewering the upperclasses in his work,
would approve.

I'd seen the Kronos Quartet once before at Bass
Concert Hall at UT in Austin. They're an extraordinary group and one of
the best things that came out of their Texas visit was a duet with
legendary singing/yodeling cowboy Don Walser on the traditional country
ballad, "Rose Marie" which Walser later released on his 2000 album,
"Down at the Sky-Vue Drive-In". The fact that around that same time
(around a year before) they teamed up with experimental composer
Phillip Glass to record a new score for Tod Browning's original Dracula
is not only a tribute to their versatility, but also to their interest
in the macabre. A group consisting of a cello, two violins and a viola,
the Kronos Quartet is a soft-spoken group that doesn't spend a lot of
time with stage banter, but is one of the greatest popular string
quartets in the world (giving "more than 100 concerts each year" their
official bio tells us).

The Tiger Lilies, well, they are a
difficult group to categorize. A three-man group consisting of a
drummer, a bass player (who spent a few moments on a musical saw ?
though nothing like the singing saw work on the brilliant, similarly
Halloween-themed song, "Mysterious Mose" from R. Crumb's "Cheap Suit
Serenaders") and a singer who doubles on the accordion and piano (and
even, at one point, a ukulele), The Tiger Lilies perform traditional
cabaret ballads with a ragtime anarchy that feels like early Oingo
Boingo blended with Tom Waits (particularly the Tom Waits of the
experimental William S. Burroughs-penned theater piece, The Black
Rider). The singer, Jacques, comes on stage in the costume of a
barbershop balladeer, but also in the face makeup of a vaudeville
clown. He swears at the audience, swears at his bandmates, is generally
a total curmudgeonly asshole to all those around, but has a hauntingly
beautiful falsetto ? technically a "counter tenor" - singing voice
(yes, he sounds like a castrato forever raging at the world that took
his manhood) that echoes through any concert hall and sends chills up
and down its listener's spines - particularly
when he's reciting woeful ballads about death, suicide and educated
pigs on their way to pig heaven. Or about "FIRE!!!!" - a lyric sung
with the kind of force and verve that Danny Elfman gave "Minnie the
Moocher" in Forbidden Zone.

After the large crowd had filed
into the auditorium (urged in by a cheerfully smiling old man in a
tuxedo walking through the crowd beating a hammer along three chimes of
a small dulcimer in lieu of the typical dimming lights), the Kronos
Quartet took the stage first. The evening was to be divided into two
halves ? a pair of solo sets by Kronos and The Tiger Lillies followed
by an intermission that would then be followed by a combined set.

"Aaj Ki Raat (Tonight is the Night)" from composer Rahul Dev Burman
came first followed by the quick strains of Aleksandra Vrebalov's
"Pannonia Boundless," a piece written specifically to be performed by
the Kronos Quartet. Following that was the whimsical "Mini Skirt" from
Juan Garcia Esquivel and then "Flugufrelsarinn (The Fly Freer)" by the
Icelandic group, Sigur Ros. A too-brief set, of course, but a nice
introduction to the power that is the Kronos Quartet, particularly on
"Flugufrelsarinn," truly the highlight of their set and a beautiful way
to end their introduction.

And then came the Tiger Lillies. Dear God.

The cacophonous ravings of a madman is pretty much the easiest way to
explain what the Tiger Lillies were all about with their solo show. The
L.A. Times made a special note in their review to gaily mention one of
their songs, likely entitled "Fire" or something else similarly
minimalist to say that singing a wild song with lyrics like "I like
burning houses down" and "START A FIRE!!!" was "no question, in
appalling taste" given that at the time the Lillies were singing it,
Southern California was burning to the ground. What's fun about
watching the Lillies is imagining that it wasn't just an "odd
coincidence" where their set list matched contemporary headlines, but
that they had the song in their old repertoire and pulled it out of
retirement specifically for this occasion ? which matches the attitude
of the group.

The Tiger Lillies are probably best known for
their Olivier award-winning songwriting for the so-called "junk opera"
"Shockheaded Peter" which they did in 1999. They don't write songs
about magically falling in love, but instead about drug addicts,
prostitutes and even beastiality ? an entire album about that one
topic, in fact, entitled "Farmyard Filth." Though it sounds like more
the music you'd hear from a rapper or an odd speed metal band, the
Lillies' Victorian balladeer tradition make them that much more of a
shocking oddity and their songs that much more bizarre.

Following five truly bizarre moral music messages from the Lillies,
intermission was called, a number of subscribers hastily beat a path
for the door and a mere few minutes later, the remaining of us were
shuttled back in for the rest of the show.

Here is the set list for the Lillies/Kronos combined musical versions of Gorey poetry (which matches the order on the CD):

"The Hipdeep Family"

"ABC"

"Weeping Chandelier"

"Jesus on the Windshield"

"Besotted Mother"

"Gin"

"Learned Pig"

"Hertha Strubb"

"Dreadful Domesticity"

"QRV"

"Histoire de Kay"

"Trampled Lily"

For forty-five minutes, we the audience were in the thrall of story
after story of mirthful death, unexpected brilliance followed by death,
success followed by death, death by alcohol, death from
loneliness/sadness, even death from a pack of ravenous wild dogs.
Death, death, death, death, death ? but all with a humorous bent.

Take
"Learned Pig," for example (which featured drummer Adrian Huge in a pig
mask). It is the story of a smart pig and his little piggy adventures
whose brilliance goes unnoticed and he dies and goes off to piggy
heaven. It felt after awhile that the phrase, "...and then he/she/it
dies" was like the secret word on You Bet Your Life where whenever
Jacques uttered the phrase, a duck half-dressed as Groucho Marx would
drop from the ceiling issuing $100 dollar bills (or, well, the entire
cast of Pee Wee's Playhouse would go bananas). "Learned Pig" is a
delightful and fun song, Shel Silverstein by way of, well, Clive Barker
on a day where he's coming up with more characters names for Abarat
sequels. Gorey's ironies do not fall far from the tree of his other
work, so you can imagine the bent of the other songs.

"Gin"
is, of course, a raucous song about the dangers of said inebriate.
"Weeping Chandelier" is about a light fixture that can't help crying
when it hears certain music. "Trampled Lily" ? sorry ?
"TRRRRRAAAAAAAMMPPPP-LLLLLLED LI-LYY!!!!!" seems more appropriate as
the syllables ricochet around my head is, of course, about a fallen
maiden. "ABC" went through the alphabet rather quickly ascribing
different horrific definition to various letters as drummer Huge tried
to keep up flipping through a large notepad with letters drawn on it.
And so on.

With every song, another couple of audience members
leapt for the door. I've seen that before ? in Austin at a one-man show
by Eric Bogosian, in Houston at the intermission of the premiere of the
disturbing long-lost Tennessee Williams prison-play "Not About
Nightingales." These same people would probably have no problem
watching a guy get shot to death in, say, an Arnold Schwarzenegger
vehicle or any of the violence on any episode of Law & Order, but
there's just something about the violence of words, particularly when
so violently thrust at you as by the Tiger Lillies, a blast of
vehemence, the smug anti-Archie Rice couched in the promised elegance
of the Kronos Quartet and a shabbily dressed falsetto ("I thought you
said he won an Olivier!? He's an abomination!"), that makes it
untenable to so many people.

Though Kronos and the Tiger
Lillies are likely to recreate The Gorey End again some place, the
album might be the only way many outside of particular cities get to
hear this show. I highly recommend giving it a listen as it is truly
amazing, unlike anything I have ever experienced before in the theater.
It is unsettling, haunting, classical in nature, but ironic, ghastly
and darkly comedic in lyric. The combination concocted by the Quartet
and the Lillies is a Victorian madman's mix, something that has to be
witnessed to be believed, and a Gorey tale indeed.

Somewhere, the Lord of Elephant House sleeps with a grin.



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