Strap-on Sunshine

k.d. lang keeps it real

Wearing big baggy dungarees and a loose red sweatshirt with extralong sleeves, k.d. lang proved this past Thanksgiving weekend that there wasn't another diva in oh-so-fashionable South Beach, White Party be damned, who could top her. After an opening set by sister duo the Pierces (think Indigo Girls lite), the big-boned gal waltzed onstage barefoot, grabbed the microphone, and commenced flirting with the audience in the darkness before her. "Hello, you extraordinary things," she growled, Mae West-like, then launched into her song, "Extraordinary Thing."

In sharp contrast to her work supporting 1997's loneliness-infused Drag, the androgynous wonder has emerged from a two-year touring hiatus repackaged as a peppy artist with a newly positive outlook. With influences that range from bossa nova to Mama Cass Elliot to Morcheeba, all orchestrated by techno-guy producer Damian Le Gassick, Invincible Summer is what her publicists are calling "more accessible" and "updated" music. Indeed the eleven new tracks released this past June are sunbursting with requited love, much like the singer herself these days. Her performance at the Jackie Gleason Theater suggests, however, that all that sweetness and light might be a kind of cross-dressing, too.

Behind her, on a platform, was her five-piece all-male band, and to her left, three talented female back-up singers, who lang referred to at one point as "girlies." In full spotlight the singers clearly were intended to be part of the visual as well as aural entertainment. "This is pretty much my favorite part of the show right here," noted lang when she got around to introducing and hugging each woman, teasingly referring to the multicolored trio as "k.d. lang's custom Neapolitan." The band members also were casual in carefully selected beach-bum attire: calf-length surf shorts, tank top, Hawaiian shirt, pedal pushers, sarong. There was a disco ball on each side of the stage and a black backdrop decorated with white circle cutouts, screens for a shifting projection of color and patterns.

For the next full hour or so, the crooner paced herself through another twelve songs. The new material was less dramatic than her earlier work, lending itself to her reconstructed loose charm. Lang flounced around the stage in abandon, resembling at times an epileptic with stomach cramps. Playing air guitar or thrusting her head in time to drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr., lang could have been a college kid at a concert or in her own living room. "I always get a little extra wound up in Miami," she admitted after a few numbers. "I don't know why. Maybe it's the Bustelo or something." Lang's own buxom bust-elo did a little winding of its own. When she stretched between songs, a chorus of female voices erupted in joyful unison: "Whoo-ooo!" Not one to let such a moment pass, lang happily repeated the movement several times, cueing more whoops for her breasts. "That's a new one," she quipped. "That's good. Whenever I [need a little boost], I can just do this. Entertaining secrets."

The slide-guitar hula number "In Perfect Dreams," from her soundtrack to the film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, had the back-up girls donning their leis and k.d. wiggling her butt at the audience. The music didn't have any of the subtle techno beats, cricket-song strings, or space-age cicada synth sounds that punctuate the album. Instead there were keyboards, drums, a bass, and guitars -- solid pop rock, with a slide guitar here, a squeezebox there, and, most notably, an upright bass for an all-too-brief and utterly sexy rendition of "Fever," that had lang curling up beside bassist and songwriting collaborator David Piltch. She also did an inspired operatic snippet of Donna Summer's "MacArthur Park," lamenting her cake left out in the rain in a piercing falsetto soprano, skilled and perfectly pitched, complete with crisply rolled r's. The final impossibly high note seemed to last forever, cutting through cheers from the audience.

Everything else in the evening, though, was the icing on top of lang's breathtaking blue-light-soaked performance of Roy Orbison's "Crying," which she sang in a duet with him when he was still alive. Hitting the song's sublime crescendos and heartbreaking cracks, lang was beautiful to watch. Not just because of her slick black spiky hair, sharp cheekbones, glittering dark eyes, radiant smile, and commanding presence -- she was beautiful because she got lost. She closed her eyes, turned her face to the ceiling, and moved to the back of the stage, yet still seemed as if she was sitting in your lap. With her spectacularly velvet voice, she inhabited the fantasy created by her music.

Concluding the set was an odd-tempoed "Constant Craving," her 1992 breakthrough hit from the Grammy Award-winning album Ingénue, and her only song so far to receive mainstream airplay. While the band was speeding, k.d. was lingering at the front of the stage, her arms open wide, as if to embrace the entire crowd. This was the Big Moment, as if she had suddenly realized she had forgotten to get intimate and it was now her last chance. But the audience needed no prodding; she had engaged them long ago.

When the crowd's standing ovation called her back for an encore, lang re-emerged in femme-drag as the title character of her 1992 song, "Miss Chatelaine." Wearing a lemonade-yellow sleeveless party gown and a tall black wig with a white flower tucked behind one ear, lang sang a high-speed rendition, garnering a mixture of hysterics and awe from the crowd. In the midst of a storm furiously flowing from a bubble machine, she leapt awkwardly, tipped her wig forward to punctuate the music, flung her see-through wrap for emphasis, and flicked her arms. One high jump revealed that she still was wearing her oversize jeans underneath the dress. Expressing false dignity, Miss Chatelaine posed with a hand to her face as if for a camera and walked prissily until she began to swagger like a butch, messing with our expectations.

"Take it all off!" someone yelled, and she did. In one fell swoop, Miss Chatelaine was in a heap on the stage. "Poor, poor, Miss Chatelaine," sympathized lang in a faux French accent. "She looks so empty. Like a lemon chiffon gone terribly wrong." A sweaty k.d. remained, revealing a loose blue tank top and an anchor tattoo on her right bicep. She asked the audience slyly: "Can we ponder for one second the convenience of a strap-on?" If Invincible Summer was meant to welcome mainstream listeners to lang's music by presenting an upbeat persona, her clever live performance leaves no doubt that she still has plenty of other costumes left in her closet.

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