Well, this was it. Finally! Leslie & the Ly’s were coming to town. We had tickets to see them last year, till Phil noticed a discrepancy in the shows advertised on Leslie Hall’s website and what was on the Black Cat’s schedule. A few days later Ticketmaster called to say she wouldn’t be performing there. I had heard that she’d play weddings in your area, if you’re willing to pay to fly them and their equipment out from Ames. A fake wedding seemed do-able, maybe a yard party, except the little problem of the neighbors and the noise. We figured we could just find suitable indoor booking, and it didn’t have to be a fake wedding. But, a private show was too expensive for any real consideration. And, just when it seemed like Leslie Hall would never be back, she and the Ly’s were booked a February date at DC9. The rest is history.
The stage before the storm.
DC9 is out on Venue Row, just a few blocks from the 9:30 Club, the Black Cat, and the Velvet Lounge, among other things. The 9:30 Club is like our House of Blues (for its size and the notoriety of the headliners). The Black Cat’s mainstage accommodates about half that. And DC 9 is a little smaller, and not as well designed. It’s really small looking from the outside, sandwiched between a big corner bar and an ethnic fast food joint. But it’s a deep building and as you walk in, shabby vinyl booths line the wall to the back.
The show was sold out. Having gotten there before doors time, we had to wait on line with a little uncertainty that the fat and/or pregnant girl in the red top (the guy she was with kept putting his hand on her belly like he was trying to detect kicking and wouldn’t stop periodically checking until he did) was working the show. We were constantly bumping elbows with people trying to get back and forth from the bathrooms, or back and forth from their seats at the tables. It took a few more minutes before we received another handstamp (one for admission, one for beer) and went upstairs.
I knew what to expect from the DC9 crowd, because they’re the same people that typically go to the other venues in the neighborhood. Lots of pale, skinny black-clad kids; a real blur of indie rock scenesters. But, what kind of crowd helped to sell out this show? …and on a Sunday night! Leslie & the Ly’s and the second opening band, Christopher and the Conquered hail from Ames, Iowa. While the arty/DIY maximum nerd consumption thing isn’t anything new, its Iowa roots makes it more Napoleon Dynamite-esque. You know, completely oddball for the sake of being oddball. A Boston School of Fine Arts grad who returned to Iowa, Leslie Hall fashioned herself into an Internet cewebrity with little more than a laptop and a sense of humor. (She even gave audience members advice… 1) come up with a cheap way to reinvent yourself, 2) post it to the internet, and 3) keep it clean). And though credited as a lady rapper in gold spandex, the whole thing is really gimmick rock. Onstage, she and the Lys are characters. (And they are hilarious!) As the Other AC correctly observed, it’s a little like theater.
When we got upstairs, Phil and I ordered beers and browsed the merchandise booth, which included Leslie & the Lys catnip toys, stripper pens (Leslie looses her gem sweater in a under 3 seconds), tote bags, and of course, CDs, and t-shirts size small to 3x. Within minutes, the first band opening band came on. I don’t think anyone knew what to make of DC-based Shock Diamond. They were two guys wearing t-shirts and jeans and women’s silk scarves. One played the keyboards and fed in loops from a stack of cassette tapes and his iPod, and did some vocals, and read lyrics from 80s songs like “Purple Rain” and Chris Isaak’s “Blue Hotel” like they were somber poetry. His chubby, hairy partner picked up a tambourine or maracas, but mostly just danced through every number.
Shock Diamond were like amateur DJs that made somewhat failed attempts to rile up the crowd, which was sad. Here we come to show to see Leslie and the Lys, performers who are not afraid to act completely ridiculous so long as it gets a laugh, and yet so much of the crowd refuses to loosen up and you know… move! It’s probably one of the most frustrating things for bands trying to connect. And this group of bands were particularly fervent in trying to connect, periodically leaving the stage to dance around and talk to the audience. As soon as singer, Chris Ford, of Christopher and the Conquered finished his first number, he stopped talking abruptly and said, “There’s something I have to do.” Then he got off stage to greet some people standing closer to the front, “Hello , I’m Chris.” It must have been Shock Diamond’s first performance, because as they left the stage, the audio tech told them where to bring their equipment. This guy standing next to us was well over six foot three, and he was more willing to get into it, and I tried to follow suit slightly, as they were tasty beats.
Just the same, I don’t think anyone knew what to make of Christopher and the Conquered when they first graced the stage. Lead singer Chris came onstage to set up his piano donning greasy shoulder-length hair, a shirt and tie, skinny jeans, and fluorescent colored Reeboks. Part of his warm up involved resting his leg atop his keyboard and someone next to us laughed that he was in the back moments ago stretching in the doorway. And with two trumpeters, a female saxophonist, and a drummer, all dressed in shirts and ties, placed alongside him, he went first, playing piano ballads and singing (well) in this voice that, when I close my eyes, sounded like a female torch singer. It was poignant and dramatic and of course, involved a few leg stretches on the keyboard. It was a lot like a routine modeled on Tim Curry’s Dr. Frankfurter in Rocky Horror (he’s actually more conservative in interviews).
Still a little baffled, we caught the ending lyrics of “Insane Idiots” that incorporated the colors of the terrorist threat level warnings, which went “…orange means lock yourself in a basement/red means kill your family before the haters get them.” And we started laughing, realizing how ridiculously funny this was getting to be. And the band chimed in alongside Chris, it went from a piano song to something as orchestral as you get with a five piece band on a tiny stage. It was a lot of fun, and they seemed to do better to energize the audience, probably because it was more relatable to this kind of crowd — Leslie Hall fans — than Shock Diamond.
By the end of their set, Chris left the stage, and we thought it was to do more stretching. But, he returned in a sort of long brown man’s sleeping gown that I remember seeing in photos out of the 70s. Then they, too, wandered into the audience a lot, with the trumpet and saxaphone players walking off single file, and Chris hanging out in the center of the audience, finishing “I’ll Stop Loving You,” and eventually wound up disappearing from view as he laid in the floor a minute or two singing. And, while the recordings aren’t bad, this is really a band that is probably best experienced live.
(Christopher & the Conquered at Vaudeville Mews back in November… not my recording)
They also showed you how hard it is to do this kind of thing full-time. There’s hardly any money in it. At the merchandise booth there was a notice posted on Christopher & the Conquered’s side that asked for a place to crash for the evening if anyone had room for the band. They asked again at the mic, and Chris assured us that they were very clean, quiet and respectable. I didn’t doubt it. I wondered if anyone wound up offering them a place to stay, and what it would be like to have a band crashing at your place for the night. These are essentially self-made performers, and there’s no record company backing. Leslie Hall drives around a mobile gem sweater museum housed in a shabby RV she bought on EBay. And the merchandise probably doesn’t bring in much money, so there’s a lot of dependence on the communal aspect of the whole DIY/art thing.
The transition between bands went pretty quickly, and the gold-clad Ly’s were on the stage when all the beer finally got to me, and I had to push through the crowd to get to the bathroom. The girl waiting next to me saw my anxiousness to get back, and assured me I wasn’t about to miss anything. She stood guard outside of the men’s room where her friend went in, not wanting to waste time waiting on line for the girl’s room. I did the same, but unfortunately didn’t have a guard, and had to wait for a man to finish up at the stall and get out (and no one else comes in) so I could get back to Phil and see the start of the headliner’s performance. He pissed, farted, zipped up and left. The true trapped-in-the-men’s room experience was just missing the senseless blather. But there’s no time!
Leslie & the Ly’s really are like watching goofy theater. The music videos and some short video clips played onscreen in the background, and it was so lo-tech. During the set, Leslie, dressed in her costume, fired up her “box that makes the beats” and the projector and had to skip back and forth for things or hint to the Ly’s when to press Play and Next. “Wasn’t there a clip we were going to play here? The one we talked about,” she’d say. The set started with just her two background performers on stage – skinny girls in gold outfits and sunglasses. And the screen, we watched a fat girl who looked like Leslie, and other girls who looked like her Ly’s, wake the sound of a screaming alarm and checking the calendar, realizing that it was the night of The Giant Show. And she’d exclaim (and this was my favorite part) “It’s great to be in _______ ” and didn’t fill in the blank.
Someone shuffled past us to the front of the stage covered in a gold piece of fabric, her face hidden. Then, one of the two Lys (her backup singers/dancers) help up a toy cannon that made a little pop, and they tossed a life-size doll dressed in a matching gold outfit off towards the back of the stage and suddenly, up pops Leslie on the other side, making her grand entrance. It was great.
They really put on a great show and though the theatrics are really quirky, there’s obviously a lot of work involved. It’s dances, and music videos, songs, and costumes. There’s even a booty-themed song where Leslie hops up on this fluorescent pink hydraulic lift that rotates here. It’s a whole operation. (I wanted to ask where they got their inspiration for the gigantic mascot heads that the Ly’s wore during a few of their songs. They look suspiciously influenced… no?)
Phil seemed to really love the banter. Sure the songs are great, but then here’s Leslie introducing a song about “Midwest values, chapstick, and mesh cut-offs” by first raising a point about the toilets in the girl’s bathroom being covered in urine (squatting can get tricky), how DC is such an old city, and really built for small cars (referring to the size of the mobile gem museum, I assume). What we really were hoping to see was the gem sweater christening. We’d seen videos on YouTube where people wore gem sweaters to the show, a trend started by Leslie Hall who started making them after a fortuitous trip to the Goodwill once, and even tried to use as an advertising vehicle for B’Dazzler (though the company turned down her pitch, though sales might still be attributed to her promoted crafts).
Anyways, at these shows, someone wearing a gem sweater would get called on stage to have it christened by Hall herself, who gives people a certificate and everything. Usually this involves a lot of build up and then getting rolled or altoghether knocked over by Hall’s lady lumps while the stream-of-consciousness name is decreed.
They picked out three members of the audience at DC9, and I’m sure there were more, but it is a small stage. The Ly’s spotted them and lined them up along the back by the drum set and Leslie made a little speech. We saw two videos on YouTube where these burly guys seemed to have been talked into wearing these gem sweaters, and they did have one guy — not so burly — who joined two girls onstage. And his sweater was really girlie! I wanted to make one for Phil for the show, but I figured, anything gem sweatery probably isn’t going to go over well. You really have to do some serious convincing for the straight guy to wear a gem sweater like a man! Well, even if Phil didn’t want to risk his manhood, I did make a shirt for myself for the show. I mean, this was the kind of show where, if you were going to wear anything for it, it should be a silly thing you made yourself. Mine was this…
My Other Shirt is a Gem Sweater (future addition to the Leslie Hall merch booths for the Leslie & the Ly’s fan on the go!)
But while the gem sweater trio, none of whom seemed to actually have made their own gem sweaters but instead bought pre-fab ones, stayed on the stage and danced along to a song about gem sweaters, they only formally named one. A girl in a black sweater with bright, glittery circles. She reminded me of Boof from Teen Wolf, and she had these spectacular 80s sunglasses. They named it “Peppercorn Mabi Ladyhopper,” and that typo in the middle word (if it is a typo) might identify who penned the Leslie Hall show comment cards that were on the merch booth. Yes… comment cards! The other two gem sweatered kids were invited backstage after the show to get their gem sweaters, named. I wonder if they do that for kid’s birthday parties?
It all grew to be pretty epic by the end of the show. Chris from Chris & the Conquered wandered up to the front of his stage and stood next to a gaggle of girls that seemed to know him, one who wore a t-shirt that said something about Vagina that Leslie Hall pointed out on stage. Another one was dressed like Leslie Hall, with this Rose Nailand blue knit thing that was kind of like a dress, and of course, the trademark Leslie glasses. That seemed a bit much. Anways, Chris joined Leslie onstage for her Midwest values song, and before I looked up (I was fumbling with the flash on my camera), I couldn’t tell the difference in their voices. Rather than adhere to the ritual of encores, where musicians deliberately leave and come back as though it’s any surprise anymore, Leslie Hall just said… “I need to go backstage and reapply my lipstick.” Backstage was just this quilt slung over a little frame that seemed to be where people kept their audio and band equipment so it wouldn’t be in the way when they performed on the stage. She fit back there. Her skinny, faithful Ly’s, too. And then along comes the saxaphonist and two trumpet players from Conquered marching up on stage in a marching band uniform made out of Beanie Babies. “I love your big giant hat!” I yelled to one of the trumpet players, who just laughed and said thanks. They broke away from the stage and wandered through the packed audience just a little, doing, as all the bands did so far that night, their interactions with the audience. As they all filed off stage and towards the back room where the bands go, you can here Phil on the iPhone video saying, “I touched her! I touched her!” jazzed like a little kid that she brushed against him.
Practical and profitable!
There’s a weird celebrity thing that goes on with Leslie, though. She’s a self-made star and even though the whole thing is purposefully cheap and dorky, there’s a real sense of a competition there to get to hang on to her. There’s a sort of Warholish bubblegum-trash pop way about it. (After all this is not on about creating art, but also consuming it). Or maybe it’s because she doesn’t come to DC that much, so people try to take in as much of this silliness as they can?
When the show ended and we were sure no one was doing anymore encores fo realz, we made our way downstairs and were ready to head outside when Phil wondered aloud whether anyone had gotten hold of the promotional poster for the show that DC9 tacked up on their bulletin board with the other upcoming show announcements. I said I’d go back and check, and left him to run back upstairs, although someone beat us to it. It was lucky, in a way, because I had started to take it down myself earlier in the show, when Phil said I probably shouldn’t. And I wouldn’t have gone back if I did. But if I didn’t have to go back (are you following the narrative flow?), I wouldn’t have met Leslie Hall.
As I was heading back downstage, I heard her voice and looked up and there she was, talking with three other girls who were gushing about. I went over and stood nearby, squeezing myself in the little bit of open space and then got Leslie’s attention. “I made a shirt, too!” I said, stretching out my purple t-shirt for her to read. She flipped, “How did you do that?! That’s great!” I didn’t think it was that hard to see that it was just the work of magic markers and a couple sparkly iron-on letters, so I just said “We didn’t have time to make gem sweaters, so I made this instead!” She was hysterical. And then asked if I could get a picture with her. It had to be a good one, because I was about to fly downstairs and show proof of all this to Phil. And there was the girl who was guarding the door to the men’s bathroom earlier, and she took it for us. And that my friend, is the night I met Leslie Hall.