Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Diamanda Galas--La Serpenta Canta 

This way my first Diamanda Galas concert, and I walked into the sold-out concert hall expecting a challenging, if not unlistenable, performance. Sitting amongst a diverse crowd ranging from conservative to camp, I was treated to a comparatively understated lineup of American ballads and traditional songs. On a simple stage lit by rich, monochromatic fields of light sliced by thin blades of harsh white light, Galas sat at a grand piano and proceeded to give a virtuosic performance on voice and piano. Covering an impressively varied repertoire, ranging from Ornette Coleman to Hank Williams, Sr., Galas dissected each song, rebuilding an entirely new vision of the love, loss, and loneliness alluded to in each song. Though heavily marked by Galas’ theatrical Goth persona and idiosyncratic vocalizations, the unexpected juxtaposition of these familiar songs with Galas’ distinct style somehow seemed natural.

It’s difficult to adequately describe Galas’ voice–a velvet blues voice so deep as to be genderless, rich and dusky, with a razor-edged sharpness that does not allow her voice to subside into mere prettiness. She moves easily between silky blues, jazz, operatic allusions and avant-garde outburst. If Galas has a pop counterpart, it lies somewhere between PJ Harvey and Nick Cave, though her willingness to penetrate the psychological layers of each song, steering them through an unerring course of travel to dark emotional depths is unmatched by either. She brings to her songs an emotional presence I have never heard in Harvey or Cave by exposing herself at the extremes of a song, not only as she slips into disembodied, seemingly trance-induced yowls & screams, but also as she sings about loneliness or isolation. Covering a Supremes song, Galas’ repeatedly spat out the chorus–“My world is empty-y-y-y.....with. out. you. babe”–in a way that turned this lovers’ plea into the embodiment of utter despair and loneliness. The most satisfying moment of the concert, however, came when Galas, coming out of a frenzied outburst of banshee vocalizations, gave a little clap, and with the stomp of her big black boots, reminded us that she was not the devil incarnate, but a performer (and a damn good one at that).

–Katherine Bovee

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