O Holy Night

On Kiki & Herb’s queer holiday cheer

Kiki & Herb SLEIGH, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2021. Photo: Richard Termine.

ON THE NIGHT OF NOVEMBER 30, a stuffed, though sacred, cow named Daisy presided over the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre, an opera house as weathered yet acoustically sound as the pair of queer Messiahs who joined her onstage proved to be as they launched into two hours of storytelling, Christmas songs, and quite a bit of drinking. As the story goes: Away in a manger one late December night, animals of various sorts attended the virgin birth of the nice Jewish boy who inspired the world’s most rabid fanbase. One of these animals was Daisy, who, while snacking on the local Bethlehemian straw, ingested a morsel of Mary’s placenta, granting Daisy eternal life. Sometime later, a wandering Jew, and pianist, and his songbird companion bumped into the cow, suckled from her supernatural teat, and were granted the same.

And so began the ascension of Kiki and Herb. Their act? A bravura, unstable cabaret filled with tales as tall as highball glasses and medleys of hits that poured forth like the Canadian Club they knock back with abandon. Embodied in the trans chanteuse extraordinaire and visual artist Justin Vivian Bond, and co-founder of Our Hit Parade founder/Julie Ruin member Kenny Mellman, Kiki and Herb built their cult following from the grounds of anarchist queer houses of worship such as Brooklyn’s DUMBA and Manhattan nightlife hotspots like the Fez and the Flamingo. They also passed through off-Broadway incarnations on their way to a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 2004 before a crowd who responded with a fabulous intensity second only to their kith and kin who’d spent two nights there in 1961 worshipping Judy Garland.

The BAM crowd erupted into the first of many standing ovations when Kiki waltzed onstage to Herb’s piano accompaniment. It was their first appearance since publicly self-immolating during their 2006 mainstream breakthrough Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway, and their subsequent 2016 reunion, Kiki and Herb: Seeking Asylum at Joe’s Pub. Kiki acknowledged the crowd with a grin and a bow, and began singing, growling, scatting, braying, and crooning. She didn’t bother to remember some of the words to medleys they’d sung for decades, which wove like tinsel through “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to Tori Amos’s “Crucify,” but she did wring every possible inflection out of those she did. During Bob Merrill’s old standard “Make Yourself Comfortable,” Kiki’s warbled repetitions gradually morphed the song title from an offer, to a dare, to nonsense. Sometimes, Herb tickled the ivories as a lover would a nether region; other times, his playing was a reminder that pianos have hammers.

Kiki & Herb eschew subtlety. Kiki can (and will) sing anything, in a voice equal parts Carol Channing and Diamanda Galás. When it bellowed the dénouement of “Frosty the Snowman,” it could have shattered glass. When it trembled during a melancholy rendition of Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” it broke hearts. Herb mostly shouted along, amiably, but when he was given the spotlight—as it happened when Kiki stumbled off stage to change from her peacock feather-alligator-hide halter-top wrap-dress into a little black number with a big poinsettia-looking boa—he got wicked, altering Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” into an abject come-on you might read in a Dennis Cooper novel. The set was minimal, just a row of lights and a silverly sleigh hung from the rafters, but everything else was maximal: The medleys, which at times collapsed genres, at other times just felt like the performers loved so many songs they couldn’t wait to move on to the next one. The crowd was full of chosen family members kept apart by Covid and not entirely discernable under their masks—but then again, don’t we all wear one mask or another, anyway? Also, the all-gender bathrooms were cruisy.

Kiki & Herb SLEIGH, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2021. Photo: Richard Termine.

A confession: I first saw Kiki & Herb at the Fez in the late ’90s. I was barely legal, and gawked as Kiki barely made it through Belle & Sebastian’s “Fox in the Snow” while she climbed onto my café table, swiped my whiskey-soda, and downed it in a single gulp. At BAM, when she draped herself across my lap, I, her acolyte, learned that too much communion is never enough.

And what about Daisy? Kiki spun a fable of reuniting with the biblical bovine while staggering around, lost after playing Vatican City. Daisy had been kept as an “indentured show-cow” by the Church, seasonally recreating her role in the drama of the birth of Jesus. Perhaps Kiki recognized what it’s like to be trapped in a character: After all, Bond and Mellman are now in their fourth decade as Kiki and Herb. Theirs might be the most sustained and fruitful creative partnership in history, recorded or otherwise.

That fateful night in Vatican City, Kiki freed Daisy—just as Kiki and Herb have freed a lot of LGBTQI people who might otherwise have no one to believe in. Throughout their career, they have been everywhere and gossiped with everyone and sung everything. They are living proof of the immortal power of queer charisma. After a long sermon delivered by Kiki in which she wondered whether God should be canceled because Mary wasn’t consenting—spiked with a few bars of “Just Mary” by Mary J. Blige—and whether tragedy is just comedy without an audience, she offered up a psalm: “The difference between a poetess and a showgirl is just a certain amount of oomph.” Kiki and Herb are all oomph, all the time. This is their liberation theology, and, thank god, ’tis their season once again.

Kiki & Herb SLEIGH is on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through December 4.