C.R. Avery Imperial Lounge, Vancouver BC, April 25
Published Apr 26, 2014C.R. Avery is an exemplary ambassador of the Commercial Drive melting pot bohemian lifestyle. The beatboxing slam poet turned cabaret blues harmonica player has released well over a dozen albums, a half-dozen hip-hop operas, a few books of poetry and has collaborated with all kinds of weird ensembles, from the Legal Tender String Quartet and Tons of Fun University to the Prague Symphony Orchestra. He's also represented his hood of East Vancouver on tours to the far corners of the earth on the folk festival circuit to, say, getting pulled up onstage by Tom Waits in Germany. The breadth of his kitchen sink cabaret style is matched only by his hustle.
In true C.R. Avery style, his performance this evening was a spectacle, his topical leftist politics and alternately hilarious, deviant and cerebral imagery realized through an astounding blend of dance, theatre, film and music. Dubbed "Some Birds Walk For the Hell Of It: A Razzmatazz Opera of Joy" after his recently released third book of poetry, he delivered roughly two hours of gesamtkunstwerk wrapped around an intermission. Assembling a so-called East-Side Eternity Crew that boasted party-rocking turntablist DJ Su Commandante, famed burlesque performers Lola Frost and Melody Mangler, and classically trained dancers Darcy McMurray and Susan Kania, their mix of high art and lowbrow amounted to the ultimate rock show.
A semi-narrative line of bathtub videos introduced certain sections and smoothed transitions, while Commandante performed instrumental interludes, injecting sound effects, vocal samples and snippets of popular music to highlight certain lyrics. Among the range of burlesque routines and dancing personas unfurling around him, Avery had more costume changes this show than most pop divas. He got into the character of a preppy poet, a cowboy with aviator sunglasses, and a mulleted, Canadian tuxedo-wearing banjo player from Abbotsford who ripped on all the artsy-fartsy types, among others.
He danced with a bride while dressed as a greasy gangsta cook, to help paint the picture of a sinner and a saint at the intersection of Commercial and First Avenue, and acted a Run-DMC-style priest for a sacrilegious nun striptease, during which he dropped some of his revelatory harmonica beatboxing (beatboxing through a harmonica).
Wearing a big fake moustache and knotted sweater, the reason for his breakaway pants later revealed, Avery performed five poems while Frost and Mangler, dressed as cops, hassled McMurray and Kania, who played the part of protester ballerinas that defaced the Canadian flag with "No Pipeline" graffiti (a hot-button topic around these parts).
And yet, some of the most emotionally resonant moments came in simpler contexts. While doing a beatboxing bit about there being 57 channels and nothing on, a frazzled ballerina in a housecoat performed a riveting physical interpretation around him. For the opening number, he performed essentially as himself, singing his regret for the struggles his dead heroes faced in life while hoping for a part in a Quentin Tarantino/Spike Lee movie. Basking in the glow of blue light, accompanied by the sound of rain, his scratchy, charcoal voice, seemingly ravaged by the hard road of a traveling artist and ne'er-do-well, reached for notes that weren't quite there, but their insinuation from his passionate inflection was enough for deep impact.
Though his compassionate eye for beautiful losers and tragic heroes is central to his poetry, humour is always at the core. His Abbotsford banjo player character returned in the second half to strip to "Freebird," and the knotted sweater guy sang a plaintive song thanking a woman for a blowjob after his recent divorce. The most striking bit came with pre-recorded music, though, as Avery, then dressed in a nice suit and fedora, helped mime all the ways Frost and Mangler could eat each other out.
Some of the sound cues were a little clunky, and Avery had to cover up a few lyrical flubs with scratch sounds, but the whole show fostered an authentic anything goes vibe. Avery puts himself all the way out there, figuratively and literally; on a couple occasions, he was almost naked. The stream of sweat dripping down to his belly betrayed an unwavering commitment to the show.
Undoubtedly, Avery is a master of stage presence. The guy knows how to play to his crowd, responding to catcalls in character and calling out lacklustre responses lest the crowd lull themselves to complacency. Coaxing the girls to sing "some birds walk" and the guys to follow with "for the hell of it" for his encore, the crowd left with a song on their lips and a memory reminiscent of what it would be like to see Kid Koala produce a Tom Waits show indelibly imprinted in their minds. You haven't been to East Van unless you've seen this guy live.