Downstairs at the Maj
15 – 18 August, 2013
Christa Hughes, she with the voice that goes right up to her bum, returns to the basement cabaret at the Maj in great form.
Last time she was here was with her dad, the venerable boogie woogie pianist Dick Hughes, and a terrific set of dirty blues and drinking songs; this time around she’s brought the striking jazz pianist Leonie Cohen, drummer Jim Dunlop, a combustible collection of right-out-there songs and some truly gob-smacking costumes.
The result, Neurotic Ladyland, sometimes threatens to tip over the edge, but most of the risks Hughes takes pay off, and she’s always got that mighty voice of hers to straighten things up if they go haywire.
Hughes has a particularly strong string to her Bowie, and nails versions of his Cracked Actor and Under Pressure, along with a crafty medley of Mein Herr from Cabaret and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, transposing the lyrics of each to the tune of the other. She’s got the pipes for Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, and the imagination to twist standards to her purposes.
One of them, It’s Only a Paper Moon, opens the show, Hughes behind a lace parasol and singing through a megaphone to give its sweet lyric an effective Brechtian distance.
The twisted I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy and some melodramatic lip synched dialogue from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane follows, Hughes taking on Bette Davis in an eye-popping baby doll number and smeared whiteface.
I was a little relieved when Cracked Actor came to the rescue, and Bowie was there again later when a sequence of songs that began hilariously with Hughes mutilating My Favourite Things descended into some awkward material about porn and the bits that are used in it.
But the best came last. Hughes has rediscovered Lou Reed’s spare, gorgeous ballad, New Age, from the Velvet Underground’s 1970 Loaded album, and given it a stately, heartbreaking treatment, all artifice and outrageousness put aside. If nothing else in Neurotic Ladyland convinces you, though much of it will, New Age shows what an affecting and powerful performer she can be.
There’s a wave of female artists, like Ireland’s Camille O’Sullivan, Canada’s Martha Wainwright, America’s Amanda Palmer (who is at the Astor next month and should not be missed) and our own Meow Meow, who straddle rock and cabaret to deliver some of the most adventurous, sassy, sexy and beautiful acts you’ll see anywhere. I’ve no doubt Christa Hughes deserves her place among them.
This review appeared in The West Australian 17.8.13