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Singer/actor Levi Kreis on his D.C. return cabaret concert April 3

Out performer happy to reunite with fellow ‘Smokey Joe’ alum Nova Payton



Levi Kreis, gay news, Washington Blade
Levi Kreis considers himself a pioneer of openly gay fin de siecle-era performers. (Photo courtesy AGD Entertainment)

Levi Kreis
With guest Nova Payton
An Evening of Jazz, Soul and Storytelling
City Winery
1350 Okie St., N.E.
Wednesday, April 3
8 p.m.
$20-30 (VIP)

Americana singer/songwriter and actor Levi Kreis has fond memories of working in Washington. In 2014, he led the Arena Stage cast of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” along with actress/singer Nova Payton.

They reunite Wednesday, April 3 at City Winery for “an evening of jazz, soul and storytelling.” 

Kreis, perhaps best known for his Tony-winning role as Jerry Lee Lewis in “Million Dollar Quartet,” spoke to the Blade by phone last week from Nashville. His comments have been edited for length.

WASHINGTON BLADE: What are you doing in Nashville?

LEVI KREIS: I’m from Tennessee so a lot of my musical connections are here. I’m developing and working on new music I’ll be recording in Los Angeles next week.

BLADE: How and why did you come to make Chicago your home base?

KREIS: That’s the second city where we played “Million Dollar Quartet.” I found a home there for about a year and a half while we continued to further the story and prepare for Broadway. I just fell in love with the city so much. I also found my husband there which is pretty amazing so it holds a lot of really wonderful moments for me — the beginning of “Million Dollar Quartet,” meeting my husband, getting sober, I’ll be 10 years sober in May. Chicago has a great soul to it.

BLADE: You said you consider yourself a “pioneer of the out music movement” of the early 2000s. What do you mean?

KREIS: There weren’t many of us beginning our careers as out. I got kicked out of my conservative Southern Baptist college in Nashville and dropped from a gospel music label. It took a lot of painful turns to come to terms with who I am and what my platform as an LGBT performer, especially one of the first people to contribute to the out music movement in the early 2000s. If it hadn’t been for the challenges I encountered in Nashville, I don’t know that I would have had the boldness to take the platform that I eventually took.

BLADE: What gospel label were you signed with?

KREIS: Myrrh

BLADE: Had you released anything with them?

KREIS: We were recording.

BLADE: Did you realize the ripple effect coming out would have?

KREIS: I didn’t come out, actually. I had been in my sixth year of conversion therapy and I was sitting in my dorm room looking at different translations of scripture and Strong’s concordance at every scripture that deals either directly or indirectly with homosexuality. My roommate was curious and he went to the student union to request prayer for me. 

BLADE: Did you see “Boy Erased”?

KREIS: No, but I read the book.

BLADE: How did your primary scriptural research line up with others who’ve studied those passages?

KREIS: I have my own opinions about it but at the end of the day, I don’t care what people believe about the scriptures. … For me, I have a clean conscience and no inkling of being broken, a mistake or needing any type of healing.

BLADE: Have you stayed in touch with Nova since “Smokey Joe’s”?

KREIS: Yeah, we have. We’ve had a couple performances together. I have such respect for her talent. There’s a real genuineness from her and that’s rare in this world.

BLADE: What do you have planned for City Winery?

KREIS: I’m excited to bring a show that was voted by L.A. critics as the no. 1 cabaret show of 2017 and I can’t put the show down because people continue to ask for it. I haven’t had an opportunity to share it with D.C. but a lot of it chronicles what we’re talking about — how does a small-town Tennessee boy navigate all these challenges and find himself in Times Square on Broadway with a very different life than what he grew up with? I reimagine Broadway classics and I do my originals too. … Also, I bonded with the musical theater world in D.C. so it’s great to come back and I wish I could do it more.

BLADE: How was (your 2018 album of originals) “Liberated” received?

KREIS: That was a CD dedicated to my Kickstarter backers, my passion people who have been there for me since the beginning. A lot of it was super personal. We talk a lot about gay marriage but not much about gay divorce and I had a pretty brutal one. It was sort of wanting to take a microscope and look at all the bullshit and just find a patyway to forgiveness because I don’t think we can really get rid of that stuff if you don’t find a way of making sense of it that allows you to let go.

BLADE: Where are you musically and spiritually now?

KREIS: Spiritually, I feel like there’s a common thread with everything so that’s what I’ve been diving into now and asking how can I find the consistencies in that which I believe and make that a unifying force? Musically, I’m really excited this year to have a relaunch, a rebranding of sorts of stuff that takes me back to my roots of the gospel church music of the South, everything that I grew up listening to having had my start in black churches. We’r releasing some singles in July, then after that an EP but it’s everything from early Southern, piano-centric music to early Ray Charles-type stuff that feels like coming home to me.

BLADE: How did you get all those names on your body on your “Imagine Paradise” album cover? 

KREIS: My girlfriend Carrie, who took the photo, she painstakingly checked and double checked every name and wrote them on me in erasable Sharpie. We had to wash it all off and do it a second time to get it right. That was a lot.

BLADE: Did your family have a lot of gospel records in the house when you were growing up? 

KREIS: Oh gosh, a ton. My grandaddy was my hero. He passed away not long ago and I’ve been going through a lot of his old records. One I rediscovered recently was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. …. She’s the sweet spot for me between gospel and rockabilly. Growing up Brenda Lee was a friend of my family, so I got to be on the bus with her for several tours. She is a class act, always super professional. We had a lot of Mahalia Jackson and Andrae Crouch. Those were on repeat on a weekly basis. 

BLADE: Black and white gospel didn’t overlap much in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. How did you end up singing in black churches and having all these gospel records?

KREIS: My grandfather worked at the post office with his best friend, Alice. I was just a kid and she said, “Leroy — you gotta get that boy singing in church,” and she took me over to Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and that was my first time singing in church and other black churches followed. I was the only towheaded kid in the whole building.

BLADE: How did you and (partner) Jason (Antone) meet? Are you married? 

KREIS: We’ve been together 10 years and we were married in November. We had the same publicist in Chicago. He was also an out artist. I knew of him from the Pride circuit but I’d never met him. At the time we met, he was leaving a 15-year relationship and I was divorcing and we just hit it off as friends but then like a month later we were like, “Wow, this is super easy and I like you a lot.”

BLADE: You look so buff in some of your videos. Do you put on weight between projects?

KREIS: Oh gosh, I’m not in tip-top shape these days. Have you been on my Instagram lately? But as long as I’m under 185 and can fit into my suits, I’m OK to operate. My weakness is Keebler Grasshoppers. They’re like crack.

BLADE: Having played Jerry Lee Lewis (who at age 22 married a 13-year-old cousin to much controversy), what do you think of the trend of reassessing historical figures and judging them by #MeToo/2019 standards?

KREIS: I don’t think it’s fair. I think it’s dangerous, actually. I think it’s more important to focus on our current responsibilities in shifting the consciousness of our culture. I believe we’re all too ready to demonize every single person we possibly can. We’ve become like a bunch of church ladies. We enjoy looking for fault in people when more love is needed, more compassion is needed, more understanding is needed. I do think we need personal accountability too, I’m not saying that, but it’s a balance, a spiritual balance.

BLADE: It sounds like Jerry Lee was really cool with you. What was it like hanging out with him?

KREIS: Well “Great Balls of Fire,” was like my family reunion trick when I was 12 years old so he’s kind of been the conversation around my household for my whole life. … He used to use a Bible verse, I wish I could remember it, to make the point to people who said he was doing the devil’s music, so I had him sign my Bible right next to that verse. He was very funny and told me I was the best actor who’d ever played him. I’ll never forget that. 

BLADE: How’s the rest of 2019 shaping up for you?

KREIS: I’m excited about this new music and a brand new team who is ready to introduce a new yet old side of me to the rest of the world. … I’ve been workshopping some new stuff. It’s gonna be a year on the road. I’m excited. 


Music & Concerts

The Atlantis to showcase musical legends of tomorrow

New venue, a near replica of original 9:30 Club, opens next month



A look at the interior of the original 9:30 club. (Photo public domain/Library of Congress)

A new nirvana for music fans opens next month adjacent to the 9:30 Club. Dubbed The Atlantis, this intimate venue embraces a 450-person capacity – and pays homage as a near-replica of the original 9:30 Club.

The $10 million venue comes courtesy of I.M.P., the independent promoter that owns and operates the 9:30 Club and The Anthem, and operates The Lincoln Theatre and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The Foo Fighters will inaugurate The Atlantis on May 30, which is also the 9:30 Club’s anniversary. Foo Fighters lead singer Dave Grohl, during a concert in 2021, kicked off speculation that I.M.P was planning to open a new venue, noting that, “We’ll probably be the band that opens that place, too, right?”

Other big names on the inaugural 44-show run roster: Franz Ferdinand, Barenaked Ladies, Third Eye Blind, Spoon, and Billy Idol.

To thwart scalpers, The Atlantis utilized a request system for the first 44 shows when they went on sale two weeks ago. Within four days of the announcement, fans had requested more than 520,000 tickets, many times more than the total 19,800 available. All tickets have been allocated; fans who were unable to snag tickets can attempt to do so in May, when a fan-to-fan ticket exchange opens.

While I.M.P. oversees multiple larger venues, “We’ve been doing our smallest shows in other peoples’ venues for too many years now,” said Seth Hurwitz, chairman of I.M.P. “We needed a place that’s ours. This can be the most exciting step in an artist’s career.”

The 9:30 Club holds 1,200 people, while The Anthem has space for up to 6,000.

“This will be where we help introduce new artists to the world… our smallest venue will be treated as important, if not more, than our bigger venues. If the stories are told right, both the artists and the fans begin their hopefully longterm relationship. Its stage will support bourgeoning artists and the legends of tomorrow,” Hurwitz said. Hurwitz and the team developed a tagline for the new venue: The Atlantis, Where Music Begins.

Hurwitz got his start at the original 9:30 Club, originally located at 930 F St., N.W. He was an independent booker of the club for the first six years and then he bought it, and managed the move from its original location to its current location in 1996. The venue first opened in 1980.

Audrey Fix Schaefer, I.M.P. communications director, provides further insight. “We were missing small venues in our umbrella. Big acts don’t start in stadiums. We need a place for emerging artists and for the community to discover new acts. The Atlantis can help new artists grow.”

While design elements are still coming into focus, Schaefer says that the space will be intimate, with almost no separation between the artist and the crowd. “There will be energy on both sides of the stage,” she says.

Although The Atlantis is set to be a replica of the original 9:30, I.M.P. has spared no expense. Schaefer notes that the sound and light systems use the latest available technologies, similar to next door at the current 9:30 Club.

The Atlantis takes over the footprint of now-closed Satellite Room. The venue will have at least two bars flanking the stage; cocktails but no food will be available.

Schaefer notes that since its early days, 9:30 Club and I.M.P. “has always been a place where people are welcome. People come and feel safe with us.” 9:30 Club has hosted several LGBTQ Pride parties, the BENT dance party series, and other events for LGBTQ patrons. Particular acts of note during the kickoff run include Tegan & Sarah and Tove Lo.

The Washington Blade was a neighbor to the 9:30 Club at its original F Street location back in the 1980s. Despite their proximity, noise wasn’t an issue for on deadline nights, when Blade staff worked late hours.

“We would of course work later hours back then,” said Phil Rockstroh, a longtime Blade staffer, in a 2016 Blade interview. “Everything was typeset and done by hand without computers and fax machines so getting through deadlines was much more time consuming.”

Rockstroh said the noise wasn’t a distraction.

“It wasn’t too bad as older buildings were constructed more solidly,” Rockstroh said. “There was only one entrance to the building and you entered so far to the elevator that went up to the other floors and then continued down the hall to the entrance to the 9:30 Club. Frequently at night if I was coming or going, there were people spilling out the doors.”

“The Blade has always had a friendly relationship with the 9:30 Club,” he added.

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Music & Concerts

National Philharmonic to perform classical, contemporary works

Violinist Melissa White returns



The National Philharmonic will host “Beethoven’s 7th” on Saturday, April 15 at 8 p.m. at Strathmore.

Past and present will collide in this performance of contemporary works and classical masterpieces. Maestro Piotr Gajewski will direct Valerie Coleman’s “Umoja, Anthem for Unity for Orchestra” Violinist Melissa White will also return to the Philharmonic to perform Florence Price’s sweeping, melodic “Violin Concerto No. 2.”

Tickets start at $19 and can be purchased on the Philharmonic’s website.

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Music & Concerts

Bruce & Janet & John Legend, oh my!

Slew of iconic acts hitting the road after pandemic cancellations



Janet Jackson is among the iconic acts touring this spring.

Pop and rock icons are releasing their pent-up pandemic frustrations by mounting huge tours this spring and summer. After three years of canceled and postponed shows, everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Janet Jackson is hitting the road at long last. But save your coins because the TicketMaster algorithms are driving ticket prices to astronomical highs. Here are a few highlights from D.C.-area venues this spring. Although some of the iconic acts aren’t coming until summer — Beyonce, Madonna, Pink — several others are hitting the road this spring.

Betty Who plays March 10; Keyshia Cole headlines the All Black Extravaganza 20 Year Anniversary tour on March 18; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs come to town on May 3; Seal brings his world tour to town on May 10; and the beloved Pixies are back on the road with a new North American tour stopping here on June 10.

9:30 CLUB
Don’t miss Gimme Gimme Disco, an Abba dance party on March 18; Inzo arrives on March 31, followed by Bent on April 1; Ruston Kelly brings his The Weakness tour on April 17 along with Purr; The New Pornographers show on May 19 is sold out but there are tickets available for the May 20 show; The Walkmen have added a fourth show on May 23 because the other three shows are sold our;

Living legend Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are back with a vengeance, playing one of four area shows on March 27. (They’re in Baltimore the night before.) If you missed out this time, don’t worry, Bruce is playing Nats Park in September as well as at Baltimore’s Camden Yards. April 1 brings the R&B Music Experience, including Xscape, Monica, Tamar Braxton, and 112. Blink-182 comes to town on May 23. And this summer watch for Sam Smith to continue his hot streak, bringing his “Gloria” tour to town on Aug.4.

Janet Jackson makes her highly anticipated return to the stage this spring, arriving in our area on May 6 along with guest Ludacris. The LGBTQ ally and icon has promised new music on her upcoming “Together Again Tour,” which follows the pandemic-related cancellation of her “Black Diamond Tour.” Jackson also plays Baltimore’s newly renovated CFG Bank Arena on May 13.

John Legend plays two nights at Wolf Trap on June 2 and 3; Charlie Puth follows on June 4. Wolf Trap also hosts the Indigo Girls on June 7 just in time for Pride month. Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Smithereens at the Birchmere on March 17. Fans of ‘80s alternative will be lined up for the Church also at the Birchmere at April 4, followed by Suzanne Vega on April 26. Amy Grant returns to the stage this spring and plays the Birchmere on May 2. Echostage plays host to a slew of buzz worthy shows this spring, including Ella Mai on April 8 and Fisher on May 12.

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