Last year was a whirlwind for performance artist and gender activist Justin Vivian Bond. On the career side, Bond—who initially came to fame playing a boozy over-the-hill chanteuse in cabaret duo Kiki and Herb—published the memoir Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels; mounted the art exhibition “The Fall of the House of Whimsy” at a Lower East Side gallery; and released a debut solo album, Dendrophile. Personally, things were more complicated, including a forced move when the artist’s longtime abode was razed, and an enlightening online feud with a New York magazine writer who referred to Bond as “he” in an article.
Underneath the outré trappings and outrageous humor, Bond—who uses the pronoun V to reflect life as a trans person—is an individual of conviction and culture. This is reflected in a new self-released solo CD, Silver Wells, inspired by Joan Didion’s seminal ’70s novel about a self-destructive artist, Play It as It Lays. Bond’s voice isn’t beautiful; it’s raw, piercing and full of purpose. The songs, mostly covers with Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett’s piano the sole accompaniment, include many classics that sound little like their original incarnations. Brecht-Weill’s “Alabama Song” is raspy and chilling, while Joni Mitchell’s “Lesson in Survival” is grounded and introspective.
Most memorable is Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ ’Bout a Revolution,” which loses its poppy quality and becomes an impassioned call to action. During a six-week Monday night engagement at recently opened cabaret venue 54 Below, Bond will have plenty of time to explore the mixed emotions of the album and of life.—Raven Snook