BWW Review: JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND: UNDER THE INFLUENCE at Joe's Pub
Not for Collins' absence (she wasn't feeling great and had an early morning flight) but for the vase of flowers Collins sent, that after a zealous performance of the murder ballad,"Pretty Polly" (which Collins recorded to acclaim in 1969) now lies in shards on the floor of the Joe's Pub stage.
Go ahead and send in the clowns, it will all be alright. The shattered vase was an omen of things to come. And no apology will be necessary, for as filtered through the fractured mind of the unstoppable Justin Vivian Bond, Under the Influence, Bond's new tribute to the beloved singer proves a smashing (and unexpected) tribute from one (very different) artist to another.
The contrast between Judy Collins, the flute voiced singer / songwriter who came to prominence in the folk scene of the 1960s and Justin Vivian Bond, the acid-tongued trans-genre artist who first burst on to the underground cabaret circuit in the 1990s might, at first shrug, appear to be the book-end punchline to a late night comedy sketch.
But upon closer examination there are some ties. Both are activists long committed to human rights and human expression. Both (in their own way) are a type of curator whose art has documented and reflected the fiber of the changing American experience, albeit from different generations and different persuasions.
And for Bond, who refers to Collins as a "spiritual babysitter," especially during those formative years growing up (admittedly as something of a 'morbid child') the folk singer proved an early and seminal influence. Now as part of a performance series under Collins' own guidance (Judy Collins is the 2019 recipient of The Joe's Pub Vanguard Award & Residency) Bond gets a moment for payback (literally and figuratively) with a show that is, in every way, uniquely and unequivocally Justin Vivian Bond's own.
Unfolding salon-esque, early on it's made clear early that this to be no greatest hit tribute ('Because,' as Bond breezely explains, 'I figured why the hell would she want to hear that?') but an evening of songs written by writers Judy Collins has covered but never recorded herself (get it?).
In other words, what Bond is performing is the music Collins might have tackled had she simply turned the next page of a composer's songbook instead of pausing on the tunes that became her greatest hits. As it turns out, the idea is an inspired one; at once freeing Bond from the trappings of taking on an idol's ouvre, and providing food for thought into the realms of music that, for over fifty years, have made Collins one of America's most distinct voices.
Luckily for this theseus, Collins' taste for composers is eclectic and varied, and Bond's instincts for selection astute; and Under the Influence takes full advantage of both by spinning unexpected material from the likes of Tom Paxton, Duke Ellington, Crosby Stills and Nash, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel and even Stephen Sondheim.
From the folksy "Leaving London" (which Bond is quick to quip, 'I've done many times myself') to the driving "First We Take Manhattan," delivered with full stop power wail, the throaty, honey-whisky voiced Bond, often swaying or elegantly marking time with manicured hands, proves throughout a compelling vocalist and a bewitching interpreter.
Bond (a sort of Auntie Mame on librium, who rather brings to mind the love child of Tammy Grimes and Tilda Swinton, by way of Filene's on the Bowery) weaves throughout this 11 song set a spell of stream of conscious banter and personal reflection; occasionally relevant, often baffling, frequently side splitting, and always endearing and astutely perceptive.
What, you may ask, do San Francisco, a nervous breakdown, Arizona, a cousin who exercised in the nude while sipping on a bottle of rose, mother's sofa cousins, fibromyalgia, gender dysphoria and Bond's biggest childhood idol, Sandy Duncan have to do with Judy Collins and "Reno, Nevada" (a song, incidentally cut from the set)? We may never know, but in Bond's hands it becomes a rhapsodic monologue of 1970s Americana gone awry worthy of, well, now come to think of it, a Judy Collins ballad.
Despite the ongoing drollery, as gorgeously supported by an excellent trio of musicians (Nath Ann Carrera on guitar, Claudia Chopek on violin, and David Sytkowski on piano) Bond never loses track completely of the idea that music here is the reason for the evening, and with a haunting medley of "Winter Sky" / "Winter Kills," and a reflective spin on Sandy Denny's "Full Moon," a moving song about memory and inspiration which Collins always wanted to cover ('Oh, wait she never heard of it?') Bond brings humor and tribute to heartfelt and cohesive resolution.
By the time Bond emerges for one last audience-selected encore (at the performance I saw: "Both Sides Now") a perennial Judy Collins favorite that Bond performs simply at the piano in final reverential admiration, it's clear that with Under the Influence, this honor is actually dual. Two seminal artists: each singular and inimitable, but somehow cracked, fragmented, and brought together all the more complete.