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Great balls of honesty

Singer/actor Levi Kreis finds redemption in open living and catchy pop songs

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Levi Kreis and Eric Himan

Monday at 7:30 p.m.

Jammin’ Java

227 Maple Ave. East

Vienna, VA

703-255-1566

Levi Kreis joins fellow singer/songwriter Eric Himan on the 'SideXSide Tour' at Jammin' Java Monday. (Photo courtesy of LaFamos)

In an extraordinary double-bill of gay musical talent, singer-songwriters Levi Kreis and Eric Himan perform together here for one night only — Monday — at Jammin’ Java, a music club in Vienna, in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia.

Tony Award-winning Kreis himself stands on the verge of big-time success with superstardom likely just around the corner, born of songs both tender and tough-minded, about being gay and searching for love in today’s changing America.

Kreis and Himan each have new albums fully “out” in their openness, their music videos are often in heavy rotation on MTV’s Logo Channel, and their songs are big on Sirius XM satellite radio’s OUTQ Channel. Kreis’s new album, “Where I Belong,” is “all about acceptance and surrender,” he says, while Himan, who is often compared with singers John Mayer, Ani DiFranco and Tracy Chapman, already has six studio albums including his newest, “Resonate.”

He opens for Kreis, who vaulted to mainstream recognition earlier this year when he won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical playing rock ‘n’ roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis, the Louisiana wild man famed for “Great Balls of Fire,” in the hit Broadway show “Million Dollar Quartet” about what was arguably rock’s first supergroup.

On Dec. 4, 1956, that legend was born when Lewis, also renowned for “A Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On,” and Elvis Presley, already well into his own career, and Johnny Cash came together for one time only in an impromptu jam session at Sun Records in Memphis, joining Carl Perkins, a rock original who had recorded “Blue Suede Shoes” before Elvis. Their recording session there happened purely by chance and it was lightning in a bottle. “Million Dollar Quartet” tells the story of this improbable event with Kreis in a star-making role he wolves down like a moon pie with a Dr Pepper chaser.

But at Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Kreis appears on stage as himself, in “Where I Belong: An Intimate Evening with Levi Kreis.” His signature sound in what he calls a “SidexSide Tour” with Himan is all his own and far from the volcanic eruption of a Jerry Lee Lewis. Like Lewis, Kreis is also a Southern boy, but at 29, he is a soulful pop-gospel crooner whose sultry-but-smooth-as-silk voice hints much more of Harry Connick, Jr. and confessional bearings of the heart than tearing up the floor like the hyper-kinetic Lewis.

With his freshly-minted Tony award and his new album, Kreis is the proverbial overnight sensation, simply one years in the making. Now on his national tour during those Mondays when Broadway shows go dark, he seeks that connection with his audience that studio albums never provide. His fiercely loyal fan basis has long been centered in LGBT circles but now grows by new leaps and bounds, and industry insiders predict he has all the right qualities to become a big star. It’s his showmanship, they say, and those charismatic heart-throb looks and sadly soulful voice. But there’s also his catchy love songs marked with pop sensibility and laments for lost love seasoned with a counterpoint of hope, like the upbeat break-up song, “Gonna’ Be All Right.”

His messages — from “Let it rain, let it pour, this is what I came here for” in the closing refrain of his characteristically upbeat love song, “I’m Not Afraid,” to the urgent demand of “give me everything or nothing at all” — spark in listeners recognition that they too have felt these same turbulent feelings in love. Kreis has been openly gay since his debut album in 2005, “One of the Ones.”

“These were personal songs about guys,” he says, “and I decided to come out with this CD.”

Even so, sometimes his lyrics are written as if sung to a woman and others are quite gender-neutral like the gospel-styled “Nothing At All.” Many of his fans today are, he says, “35- to 40-year-old straight women.” His looks help in that department, certainly, but also his accessible songs and obvious talent — he’s also a keyboard wiz.

His origins are buckle on the Bible Belt. Born in Oliver Springs, Tenn., where he grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist home, christened Matthew, it was only later that he decided to change his name to Levi after studying the Torah, the five books of the prophet Moses. Renaming himself was a definite statement of what he calls his “amalgamated spiritual views from a lifetime of seeking.”

“I may not fit neatly into any box, and I certainly don’t fit into Christianity, but I still seek the experience of God, and that’s the bottom line,” he told the Blade in a phone interview from New York City. “I believe in a very all-inclusive God, expressing itself through you and through me just as we are.”

These days, in fact, he is starting his third year studying religion with classes offered through the United Centers for Spiritual Living, connected with the Unity Church.

His singing and his spirituality remain in their essence one and the same. He learned his gospel and country roots, he says, “when I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” and in church he says, “you learn very quickly that people sing out of conviction. They are singing to let you know that you are loved, forgiven and you can be healed.”

“I was always singing,” he says. “My grandmother would tell people how I would sing in my crib before I could even stand, holding a crayon as a microphone and going ‘ga-ga-ga’!”

Aged 6, he came home from kindergarten graduation and sat down at the piano playing the orchestral march “Pomp and Circumstance” by ear. His legs were still so short his older brother had to work the pedals for him.

His parents soon enrolled him in formal piano lessons and at 8 he began to perform in churches, touring throughout the South, and he produced his first gospel album – “Just Trust” – at age 15.  While still in high school, he studied classical piano and music theory and history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and after finishing high school he moved on to Belmont University, the largest Christian university in Tennessee.

There, he says he outed himself in confidence to his roommate who then exposed him to school officials when he was just a few short credits from graduation. After debating expelling him, they decided not to, but he says he was meanwhile “so embarrassed that it was just more than I could handle.” He had struggled with his sexual orientation much earlier in secret, in seventh grade entering what he calls “Christian counseling” for so-called “reparative” or “reorientation therapy,” and he kept this up for six years without telling his parents.

He left Belmont before completing his degree, moving to Los Angeles to begin a career in show business, and quickly was picked to go on tour with the rock-musical “Rent.” He also appeared in several indie films while trying to make a go of it as a singer, and he went through more than a few record labels before breaking with the last of them (Atlantic Records) in 2004, and with only $200 in his pocket he decided to go into a recording studio. That independently produced album “One of the Ones” came out in 2005 and it began to sell following his appearance that year on the Donald Trump reality-TV show, “The Apprentice.”

What made this album different was that he was now open about his sexuality. And not just his career but also his life began to flourish.

“My life has been so affected in a positive way by coming out,” he says. “I’m not very good at keeping secrets. I value a peaceful life, being calm, and it’s important to live transparently. I just couldn’t hold that level of grief, that weight inside my body, any more, and now I can feel truly perfect in the eyes of God.”

His next album, “The Gospel According to Levi,” was released in 2007, and one of its songs, “We’re Okay,” was written openly to his mother to try to reconcile the rift that had grown between them after he came out. He says she refused to listen to it for a long time but finally saw the music video and then called him and admitted that she had never allowed herself to just listen to the words.

“I want to thank you,” he says she told him, “for deciding to love despite the differences we have.”

He has also since reconciled with the college roommate who outed him, and Belmont University recently even invited him to return to complete his degree, something he says he may do early next year.

That same year, he also took a break from touring to join the original cast of “Million Dollar Quartet,” at first in workshops in Seattle and then in regular performance in Chicago, where it was co-directed by Eric Schaeffer, the gay artistic director of Arlington’s Signature Theatre. Kreis laughs and says “me and Eric, we were were the lone gays” in what he calls for short “MDQ,” a production that he says is highly “testosterone-filled.”

Under Schaeffer’s direction still, the show moved to Broadway in April. From the show’s beginning, Kreis’s enthusiasm to recreate the combustible Jerry Lee Lewis on stage meant he would vault over pianos to land standing-up at the keyboard, especially in what he calls “the show’s very exuberant encore, where each of the four legends comes out for one last song.” The strain of such showmanship has since required reconstructive surgery on both of his knees, he admits, and for a time he wore a full leg brace, “and now I keep my feet as close to the ground as I can.”

Kreis actually met Lewis, at 75 the only “quartet” member still alive, in September when Lewis sat in for one show, as have other stars like Melissa Etheridge and Leslie Gore. Kreis and Lewis met at his hotel room, and he says that “Jerry Lee was so gracious, so loving and supportive, so witty, and so lively.”

After Kreis laid out his own Southern Baptist credentials, “soon I felt just like family with him and an undeniable bond.” Their duet, recorded separately – a cover of the Motown song “Money (That’s What I Want”) – will appear on Lewis’s next album.

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Music & Concerts

Grammys: Queer women and their sisters took down the house

Taylor Swift won Album of the Year

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When the late, great Ruth Bader Ginsburg was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, her answer was simple: Nine. She stated: “I say when there are nine, people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” RBG did not attend the Grammy’s last night, but her spirit sure did. Women, at long last, dominated, ruled and killed the night.

Cher, in song a decade ago, declared that “this is a woman’s world,” but there was little evidence that was true, Grammy, and entertainment awards, speaking. In 2018, the Grammys were heavily criticized for lack of female representation across all categories and organizers’ response was for women to “step up.”

Be careful what you wish for boys.

The biggest star of the 2024 Grammys was the collective power of women. They made history, they claimed legacy and they danced and lip sang to each other’s work. Standing victorious was Miley Cyrus, Billie Eilish, SZA (the most nominated person of the year), Lainey Wilson, Karol G, boygenius, Kylie Minogue and Victoria Monét. Oh, yes, and powerhouse Taylor Swift, the superstar from whom Fox News cowers in fear, made history to become the first performer of any gender to win four Best Album of the Year trophies.

In the throng of these powerful women stand a number of both LGBTQ advocates and queer identifying artists. Cyrus has identified as pansexual, SZA has said lesbian rumors “ain’t wrong,” Phoebe Bridgers (winner of four trophies during the night, most of any artist) is lesbian, Monét is bi and Eilish likes women but doesn’t want to talk about it. Plus, ask any queer person about Swift or Minogue and you are likely to get a love-gush.

Women power was not just owned by the lady award winners. There were the ladies and then there were the Legends. The first Legend to appear was a surprise. Country singer Luke Combs has a cross-generational hit this year with a cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” When originally released, the song was embraced as a lesbian anthem. When performing “Fast Car,” surprise, there was Chapman herself, singing the duet with Combs. The rendition was stunning, sentimental and historic.

Chapman, like many of the night’s female dignitaries, has not been public with her sexuality. Author Alice Walker has spoken of the two of them being lovers, however.

The legend among legends of the night, however, was the one and only Joni Mitchell. Not gay herself, she embodies the concept of an LGBTQ icon, and was accompanied by the very out Brandi Carlile on stage. On her website, Mitchell’s statement to the LGBTQ community reads, “The trick is if you listen to that music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it. If you listen to that music and you see yourself, it will probably make you cry and you’ll learn something about yourself and now you’re getting something out of it.”

Mitchell performed her longtime classic “Both Sides Now.” The emotion, insight and delivery from the now 80-year old artist, survivor of an aneurism, was nothing short of profound. (To fully appreciate the nuance time can bring, check out the YouTube video of a Swift lookalike Mitchell singing the same song to Mama Cass and Mary Travers in 1969.) In this latest rendition, Mitchell clearly had an impact on Meryl Streep who was sitting in the audience. Talk about the arc of female talent and power.

That arc extended from a today’s lady, Cyrus, to legend Celine Dion as well. Cyrus declared Dion as one of her icons and inspirations early in the evening. Dion appeared, graceful and looking healthy, to present the final, and historic, award of the night at the end of the show.

Legends did not even need to be living to have had an effect on the night. Tributes to Tina Turner and Sinead O’Conner by Oprah, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor and Annie Lennox respectively, proved that not even death could stop these women. As Lennox has musically and famously put it, “Sisters are doing it for themselves.”

Even the content of performances by today’s legends-in-the-making spoke to feminine power. Eilish was honored for, and performed “What Was I Made For?,” a haunting and searching song that speaks to the soul of womanhood and redefinition in today’s fight for gender rights and expression, while Dua Lipa laid down the gauntlet for mind blowing performance with her rendition of “Houdini” at the top of the show, Cyrus asserted the power of her anthem “Flowers” and pretty much stole the show.

Cyrus had not performed the song on television before, and only three times publicly. She declared in her intro that she was thrilled over the business numbers the song garnered, but she refused to let them define her. As she sang the hit, she scolded the audience, “you guys act like you don’t know the words to this song.” Soon the woman power of the room was singing along with her, from Swift to Oprah.

They can buy themselves flowers from now on. They don’t need anyone else. Cyrus made that point with the mic drop to cap all mic drops, “And I just won my first Grammy!” she declared as she danced off stage.

Even the squirmiest moment of the night still did not diminish the light of women power, and in fact, underscored it. During his acceptance of the Dr. Dre Global Impact Award, Jay-Z had a bone to pick with the Grammy voters. He called out the irony that his wife Beyoncé had won more Grammys than any other human, but had never won the Best Album of the Year. Yeah, what’s with that?

But then, it brought additional context ultimately to the fact that the winner of the most Grammys individually … is a woman. And to the fact that the winner of the most Best Album of the Year awards … is a woman.

Hopefully this was the night that the Grammys “got it.” Women are the epicenter of The Creative Force.

Will the other entertainment awards get it soon as well? We can hope.

Most importantly, in a political world where women’s healthcare is under siege. Will the American voters get it?

A little known band named Little Mix put it this way in their 2019 song “A Woman’s World.”

“If you can’t see that it’s gotta change
Only want the body but not the brains
If you really think that’s the way it works
You ain’t lived in a woman’s world

Just look at how far that we’ve got
And don’t think that we’ll ever stop…”

From Grammy’s mouth to the world’s ear.

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson returning to D.C, Baltimore

‘Together Again Tour’ comes to Capital One Arena, CFG Bank Arena

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Janet Jackson is coming back to D.C. this summer.

Pop icon Janet Jackson announced this week an extension of her 2023 “Together Again Tour.” A new leg of the tour will bring Jackson back to the area for two shows, one at D.C.’s Capital One Arena on Friday, July 12 and another at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on Saturday, July 13.  

Tickets are on sale now via TicketMaster. LiveNation announced the 2023 leg of the tour consisted of 36 shows, each of which was sold out. The 2024 leg has 35 stops planned so far; R&B star Nelly will open for Jackson on the new leg. 

Jackson made the tour announcement Tuesday on social media: “Hey u guys! By popular demand, we’re bringing the Together Again Tour back to North America this summer with special guest Nelly! It’ll be so much fun!”

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Music & Concerts

REVIEW: Madonna’s joyful, nostalgic, chaotic ‘Celebration’

Fans got into the groove at Capital One Arena for two unforgettable nights

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Madonna rocked D.C. this week.

The entire two-plus hours of Madonna’s “Celebration Tour” seemed to build to a singular ecstatic moment when the pop and queer icon glided above the packed floor of Capital One Arena in a lighted box belting out her 1998 hit “Ray of Light.”

You could feel the arena move beneath your feet.

It’s difficult to capture in words the spectacle, sheer joy, and even sadness that characterize Madonna’s “Celebration Tour,” which played D.C. on Monday and Tuesday nights featuring 28 songs in seven “acts.” Let’s get her tardiness out of the way: Yes, she was late. Very late. The 8:30 p.m. start time turned into 10:30, which, considering the advancing age of her fanbase, proved a challenge for many on a school night. But the moment she hit the stage, all was forgiven.

Bob the Drag Queen was a capable, entertaining emcee, opening the show with a short monologue of praise and inviting the glitter/sequin/feather-adorned crowd to the celebration. With that, Madonna appeared on the tiered stage (a nod to her 1984 MTV Video Music Awards debut atop a wedding cake) and opened the show with the unexpected “Nothing Really Matters,” a surprising choice for a “greatest hits” show given it peaked at 93 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart back in 1999 (though it did hit No. 1 on the dance chart that year). She wore a black kimono designed by Eyob Yohannes and a halo headpiece by House of Malakai, according to Harpers Bazaar. The look evoked her red kimono from the video. 

From there, old school fans were treated to an ‘80s throwback and a recreation of Danceteria featuring club hits like “Everybody,” “Into the Groove,” and “Burning Up.” 

The party anthem “Holiday” took a jarring turn as dancers were depicted dying on stage with Madonna using her coat to cover up one of them as the vibe quickly changed from intoxicating and fun to introspective and tearful as she transitioned to her 1986 ballad “Live to Tell.” In a show packed with highlights, this was the emotional core of the night. The song opened with two-story images of friends who had died of AIDS projected on giant screens around the stage; as the song progressed, the screens filled with more and more faces until the visages of hundreds of mostly gay men filled the arena with Madonna floating around them singing in tribute. It was a haunting moment and the most visually stunning sight I have ever witnessed in a concert. There wasn’t a dry eye in our row and I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind for two days, a painful reminder of our community’s recent history and Madonna’s role as one of the few celebrities who stood with us in our darkest hour. She has more than earned our loyalty after fighting for AIDS awareness and funding and standing up to everyone from the Pope to the Boy Scouts advocating for our basic humanity. 

After the emotional pull of that number, we needed some levity and Madonna delivered by pivoting to “Like a Prayer” featuring a giant carousel filled with her mostly shirtless dancers and a minute of chanting and a Sam Smith-Kim Petras “Unholy” snippet followed by a raucous version of the smash hit song.

Moving into act three, “Erotica” arrived with the dancers dressed as boxers in a ring with laser lights instead of ropes. There was an interlude featuring a dancer dressed as a Blond Ambition-era Madonna on a red velvet bed, another nod to an iconic Madonna moment, followed by “Justify My Love” with the scantily clad dancers writhing around their queen. 

One of my personal highlights followed as Madonna’s daughter Mercy James killed it, skillfully playing piano as her mother sang “Bad Girl,” another surprise setlist inclusion from 1992’s “Erotica” album. Though the single didn’t fare well on the charts, the David Fincher-directed video remains one of her absolute best, depicting Madonna as a Manhattan business executive who drinks and smokes excessively and embarks on a series of one-night stands that leads to her murder. Christopher Walken co-stars in the video, which was influenced by Wim Wenders’s acclaimed “Wings of Desire.” Mercy is clearly no nepo-baby; she’s a talented pianist who wowed the crowd. 

Next up was “Vogue,” which saw Madonna strutting the runway in a Jean Paul Gaultier-designed little black dress complete with conical bra and ending with a tribute to the ‘80s ballroom scene with Bob the Drag Queen in the role of Billy Porter from “Pose.” 

Act V commenced with a rather drawn out recording of “The Beast Within,” the 1990 track that features spoken word passages from the Book of Revelation. She’s included this one on several tours. It wasn’t a hit song and we’ve seen it multiple times before so it felt unnecessary.  

“Don’t Tell Me” saw the return of cowboy hats and line dancing, a spirited highlight of the night. Shortly after, Madonna slowed things down with a moody cover of “I Will Survive,” a poignant moment given her recent bout with a serious bacterial infection that led to the tour’s postponement.

But she was saving the best for last, as Act VI debuted with Madonna in a glittering Versace catsuit sprawled on a box singing “Bedtime Story” before rising to the rafters and tackling the aforementioned “Ray of Light.” It was an electric rendition that had the thousands of attendees on their feet. 

So, what didn’t work? There were a few missteps, chief among them a misguided tribute to Michael Jackson at the end of the show that depicted silhouettes of Michael and Madonna dancing to “Billie Jean” and “Like a Virgin.” The comparison screamed “He’s the King of Pop and I’m the Queen” — it felt thirsty and superfluous. The whole “Queen of Pop” debate smacks of 20th century sexism, especially in an era of Taylor Swift and Beyonce billion-dollar tours. Madonna should be over that by now. Further undermining the comparison, Michael Jackson detested Madonna and was caught on an audio recording calling her a “nasty witch” and accusing her of being “jealous” of his popularity. She should cut this segment from the show.

One friend described the show as “chaotic,” which it was at times, but that stems from trying to cram a 40-year catalogue of hit songs into a two-hour show. Some of the show’s transitions were abrupt but, again, when you have as many hits as she does, you have to move fast.

Another issue was the lack of a live band, which she’s included on previous tours. I think most concert-goers paying hundreds of dollars for a ticket expect to see and hear a band. Instead, she relied on a recorded track for the music and some of the vocals. But Madonna’s mic was live and she did sing most of the show. As for the dance moves, Madonna has certainly slowed down from previous tours; her dancing isn’t nearly as athletic as in tours past. But she’s 65 years old and the leg brace she’s worn on stage clearly shows she’s suffering from so many years of entertaining us in high heels. She can leave the moves to her coterie of dancers and focus on singing. 

She closed the show abruptly with a combo of “Bitch I’m Madonna” and a truncated “Celebration,” the tour’s namesake.

In all, a festive and nostalgic night with Madonna serving up hits and memories spanning decades for her adoring fans dressed in all sorts of tribute attire. If you’re on the fence about going, let me push you off. Go see her before she retires from touring. Yes, you’ll have to stay up late and indulge a few misguided moments. But our icons are aging and dying and no one can fill Madonna’s shoes. The show is a party, a walk down memory lane, and, yes, a Celebration.

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