Originally published on Flavorpill.
It take balls to celebrate Billie Holiday’s centennial by inviting a white drag queen from downtown to sing Lady Day’s songs in one of the most uptown of venues, but that’s exactly what Lincoln Center did at Wednesday night’s American Songbook concert featuring Joey Arias. The intersection of uptown and down, black and white, male and female set the perfect tone for an evening devoted to Holiday, herself a complicated figure too often remembered lately for her struggles with drugs rather than her artistry.
Arias placed Billie’s music front and center, offering his interpretation of 14 tunes, mostly classics, in a style reminiscent of Holiday’s unique delivery that managed to invoke the songstress without strictly imitating her. Backed by an ideal sextet under the leadership of Matt Ray, this was far more jazz concert than drag show. Arias nevertheless made a striking figure, complete with Holiday’s trademark gardenia-laden hair, although between songs, Arias seamlessly switched between his own persona and Billie’s. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but it feels important to note that Arias did not appear in blackface.) Billie’s spirit was further brought into the space by one of Holiday’s own suitcases full of memorabilia from her career provided by Craig McKay, grandson of Holiday’s last husband, who also introduced the evening.
Arias effortlessly balanced lighter swing numbers, featuring stellar solo work from each member of the band, with some of the darker songs from Holiday’s repertoire. “Strange Fruit” was unquestionably the centerpiece. By framing the song with a story linking Arias to Holiday via Barney Josephson, the storied founder of Cafe Society who first introduced Lady Day to her signature song, Arias skillfully avoided making excuses for being a white man singing a song about lynching, allowing the powerful song to speak for itself through his straightforward, powerful performance.