So this is what Gorey sounds like

Tiger Lillies, with the Kronos Quartet, bring the artist's macabre mirth to the stage in a brilliant show.

By Mark Swed

Times Staff Writer

Tiger Lillies, with the Kronos Quartet, bring the artist's macabre mirth to the stage in a brilliant show.

By Mark Swed

Times Staff Writer

October 30 2003

Fire, smoke and ghoulish light provided the atmosphere outside Royce Hall
on Tuesday. Fire, smoke and ghoulish light also provided the atmosphere
inside the hall Tuesday night. An ashen, grotesque, Victorian-clad singer
jabbered, "Fire! Fire! Fire!" in the crowded theater. "I like burning
houses down," he sang with sullen cheeriness. "Start a fire," he raved,
his voice leaping like falsetto flames, like a heroic Handel countertenor
gone mad.

No question, this was in appalling taste. No question, it was also a
brilliant performance. And no question, it was funny. A mostly young
audience's laughter was nervous at first, but as the song got more
outrageous, the laughter loosened up.

Was this catharsis or callousness?

Indeed, the string of no questions generated a string of questions, of
moral dilemmas. Gallows humor is always nasty business, so why is it OK
sometimes and not others? Isn't it even worse when it is about the other
guy rather than about you? Does anybody not love the macabre mirth of
Edward Gorey, that master illustrator of children dying horribly? Whither
Halloween while Southern California burns?

The sullen singer was Martyn Jacques, mastermind of Tiger Lillies. The
creepy three-piece British cabaret cult band - creators of last year's
delightfully sordid puppet-show sensation, "Shockheaded Peter" - had
returned Tuesday to venerate Gorey in concert as the UCLA Live Halloween
offering. And this time, Tiger Lillies had the Kronos Quartet in tow.

In 1999, Gorey heard a Tiger Lillies recording and wrote the musicians to
tell them that he thought they were the cat's pajamas and that he would
like to collaborate with them. He then sent along a crate full of
unpublished stuff.

Gorey died just as Jacques planned to fly to Cape Cod to meet with him.
The material in the crate became the basis for "The Gorey End," 13 songs
about hapless victims like the Hipdeep family, whose year begins with
Cousin Fred found in the attic dead and ends when Amy's luck is rotten, as
she loses her voice singing "Die Frau Ohne Schatten."

A master of overstatement, Jacques - accompanied by drummer Adrian Hughes
and bassist Adrian Stout - shuffles on stage, his face in white paint, a
porkpie hat over his balding head, a long, thin braid of hair in back
reaching his waist. His expressions are a language of grimaces. His voice,
spoken and sung, remains in the strained soprano range. His enunciation is
clipped and proper. He alternates between listless piano, listless
accordion and listless ukulele. He is Queen Victoria's nightmare.

Each Gorey song is a miniature vignette of doom. There is the besotted
mother of Florabelle, the girl ripped to pieces by a pack of wild dogs. A
chandelier weeps every time a waltz or tango is played. Omletta Sniggles
found Jesus on her windshield, made a fortune from the miracle, built a
house with a smile, carpeted it in a shaggy pile - and died.

Sung deadpan - the controlled violence usually remaining just under the
surface though occasionally breaking out in hilarious hysteria - these
songs are simple musically but tell their tales tartly.

The Kronos provided atmosphere, playing a lot of tremolos. The irony here
was that this hip quartet acted as musical straight man, one more
Victorian ornament in a grotesque entourage.

A 45-minute song cycle, "The Gorey End" was preceded in the first half of
the concert by short individual sets from Kronos and Tiger Lillies.

Kronos' four selections began with its delectable arrangement of an old
Bollywood number, "Tonight Is the Night," and concluded with a rhapsodic
piece, "The Fly Freezer," written for the quartet by the Icelandic pop
band Sigur R?s.

Tiger Lillies ended its four numbers with its ecstatic call to burn the
house down, tapping directly into the same troubling fascination that
keeps our eyes glued to the extraordinary pictures of raging infernos. We
are rotten to the core, the band tells us, and there is nothing to be done
about it.