At one point tonight, Justin Vivian Bond, or Viv as they are known to their friends, recounts a childhood longing, inspired by seeing washed-up cabaret acts, tired lounge singers and Robert Altman films.
A future of wearing fancy dresses and performing in glamorous nightspots while people ate steak dinners became a dream. That dream became a reality for a while until, thank goodness, it led to the likes of Carnegie Hall, Broadway and tonight’s collaboration between Kate O’Donnell’s Trans Vegas and Manchester International Festival.
By their own admission, Viv does not have a beautiful voice. The cabaret star, who has turned a combination of singing songs while telling life stories into an art from, can belt out a PJ Harvey number or bring a tear to the eye via Joni Mitchell. But it’s a voice that screams of a life well-lived, gravel-toned, alcohol and cigarette-fuelled, riddled with anger, compassion and love.
And there was plenty of love being returned to the stage tonight, such is the appreciation of an audience that knows it is in the presence of greatness. When a performer is heralded with much-overused phrases like ‘a living legend’ or ‘a unique talent’, it’s fair to have high expectations.
But Justin Vivian Bond and their superb band blew all of our expectations out of the water, performing a kind of career and life retrospective that took in 70s disco, country and western, even Kate Bush, all delivered through a potted life-history. From early confusions about being gay or trans, falling in love with straight guys, being a young queer person in New York and San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic through to forming the glorious Kiki and Herb and beyond, the ease with which Bond delivers all of this is quite astonishing. Clearly the stage is very much where Bond feels at home.
Even the size of this lovely new venue in Manchester can’t dampen the energy that Bond exudes. There’s a tenderness to that gravel voice but, at moments, a rage too, one you can feel is about to explode and which does from time to time, giving this evening of cabaret a sense of danger too. This combines brilliantly in a finale which sees another living legend join Bond on stage, as they and David Hoyle perform (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, an anarchic rendition that sums up the evening perfectly.
At the start of the evening, O’Donnell’s introduction made clear that the performance was for the trans people in the audience. Fortunately, Bond reached us all, moved us all, made us howl with laughter and left everyone truly, transcendently transformed.
Main image by Rob Martin