Grim tidings to all! Popular entertainment is suddenly awash with material that makes the holidays seem less about giving than grieving. On movie screens, greed and death are saturating the vast American landscape in “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” while throats are being slit and human flesh devoured in “Sweeney Todd.” On Broadway stages, families are being consumed by bitterness in “August: Osage County” and “The Homecoming,” while drunken solitude and hopelessness open a door to the devil in “The Seafarer.” So it seems only appropriate that undead duo Kiki & Herb should welcome Christmas in an apocalyptic mood.
Back at Carnegie Hall for “The Second Coming” after their career-topping 2004 show “Kiki & Herb Will Die for You,” the subversive lounge-act alter egos of Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman presented their most cohesive performance in years.
The one-night-only show’s political perspective was as sharp as its scabrous comedy and its eclectic appropriation of music, plucked equally from the mainstream and the esoteric fringes.
The opening song selections made it clear this was no celebratory Christmas concert. It was a religious event, to be sure, but rejoicing didn’t much figure on the agenda. Herb sat down at the Steinway to sing a few bars of My Chemical Romance hit “Welcome to the Black Parade,” followed by Kiki trudging onto the stage while leaning heavily on a biblical-looking staff (her “yoga stick”), as she fired up into a growling take on Nina Simone standard “Sinner Man” and then segued with evangelistic fervor into Kanye West’s “Stronger.”
These were not songs of joy but of insane possession and exorcism, a mood that continued and escalated through the nearly three-hour show.
Funny as it was, the scramble of Christmas carols that spiraled out of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” seemed almost a cursory obligation before Kiki got down to the darker stuff.
“It’s a tense time of year,” she warned, ruminating on the Christian right’s difficulty in finding a frontrunner for president who combines the requisite misogynistic, homophobic and racist views. For an act that scales fearless new heights in blasphemy, Kiki never negates her own or anyone’s belief in God. She merely bristles at Christian belief being hijacked as a vehicle for hate, discrimination and rigid conservatism.
In last season’s Rialto show “Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway,” and in the Joe’s Pub test-drives for much of that new material, Bond and Mellman’s enduring club-circuit creations turned a surreal corner, revealing they have actually been around since B.C. Born as Nazareth desert urchins called Naomi and Ishkabibble, they drank the milk of a sacred cow in the manger in Bethlehem and were “inflicted” with eternal life.
Up to now, that conceit had seemed like one of drug- and booze-addled Kiki’s more bizarre fabrications and a betrayal of the duo’s more reality-based history as cabaret artistes of limited talent who had recycled themselves through every music trend and personal tragedy imaginable.
But in the Carnegie show, the immortality element finally came to full fruition, allowing Kiki to lament — like some tired, wounded martyr, but often feigning indifference — on the state of the world, on spiritual bankruptcy and the endless cycle of hate and violence.
Bond is a gifted monologist whose drunken rants became increasingly haunting as the night progressed, and Kiki sank deeper into her endless supply of Canadian Club, often losing the thread and requiring a gentle nudge from Herb to regain it.
Kiki reflected on the thwarted genius of JonBenet Ramsey (“She knew too much”); how her own relationship with Hitler steered him into unsuccessful psychoanalysis and indirectly caused the Holocaust; how her refusal to keep quiet while Picasso was painting her portrait sparked the birth of Cubism; and on her competition with Mary Magdalene for Jesus’ affection: “You never saw two such rivalrous bitches.”
Dedicating a song to Jesus as “a wonderful man, a true humanitarian and the most tender lover I have ever known,” Bond expertly shifted the mood from one of outrageous blasphemy to soulful feeling with Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham.”
Using LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down,” he reflected with bitter irony on what was once a gritty, authentic freak zone making way for blandly sanitized gentrification. After recounting tales of wild club sex and autoerotic asphyxiation, Kiki then made another startling transition into “What Child Is This?” twinned with a blistering take on Tori Amos’ “Crucify” and wrapped up with a snippet of “Stairway to Heaven.”
With Mellman hunkered down like Schroeder at the piano, tinkling away throughout Kiki’s ramblings and then firing up into Rachmaninoff-style pounding and barking vocals, the show’s musical components mixed K&H classics with new songs, including material written for the act by Mark Eitzel, Antony Hagerty and Stephin Merritt.
A pairing of Joni Mitchell’s “River” with Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” was inspired, as was Kiki’s snarling delivery of Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” to illustrate her own sour interpretation of the joke of faith.
Given the difficulty with which she negotiates a cabaret stool, climbing on a soapbox could be tricky for equilibrium-challenged Kiki. But without ever resorting to an obvious agenda, her songs and stream-of-consciousness dialogue returned repeatedly — particularly in the second act that tied the show’s themes together — to the cruel reality of a world where peace and freedom are endangered, if not extinct. “If You Were Born Today,” by Jimmy Eat World, became an especially poignant consideration of how Christ might have fared in 2007.
As transcendently theatrical moments, Kiki’s account of Herb’s persecution and rape while they were institutionalized, and her delivery of his brutalized body to the infirmary, remains a powerfully crazed, extended vignette, musically threading together 1990s L.A. punk band Butt Trumpet with Patti Smith and Kate Bush; and the unlikely medley of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Suicide Is Painless” perfectly channels the cocktail of anger and desperation that is key to Bond’s vividly inhabited stage persona.
“If there’s a sniper in the audience, I ask only that you kill me now,” pleaded Kiki. “Don’t make me go through this whole show just to shoot me later.”
For an act that has evolved steadily from post-punk underground roots to infamy on Broadway and beyond, and has seemed in recent appearances to be questioning what new path to take, the sense of exhausted surrender had a double edge. But as champions of all our suffering, Kiki & Herb are hard to beat at Christmastime.