Encountering Diamanda

If you're even remotely familiar with Diamanda Galᳬ the notion of her playing the Crocodile Cafe this Thursday might seem impossible. How could such a small club contain her otherworldly shrieks and howls?

In the past decade, I've seen more performances by Diamanda than any other non-Seattle artist. I've heard her deconstruct "I Put a Spell on You" at a tacky industrial night on Halloween, and watched her set fire to a copy of Spin at New York's historic Town Hall. I left the Cathedral of St. John the Divine transfixed with mute awe after her apocalyptic Plague Mass made the prom scene from Carrie look like a Teletubbies outtake.

Rest assured, while she always brings down the house, I've yet to see her incur actual structural damage. To the venue, that is.

The visceral shock of her delivery aside, versatility is what makes Gal᳧ artistry so arresting. She tailors her aesthetic—which incorporates the blues, jazz, opera, and the musical traditions of more countries than most Americans can identify on a globe—to suit precisely any medium or space she deems fit. Diamanda is neither reckless about her choices, nor their execution, and thus sidesteps embarrassments like Streisand's Classical Barbra or Cleo Laine tackling Schoenberg.

For her latest album, Malediction and Prayer, Gal᳠assembled a program focusing on death, isolation, and love. Amidst standards like "Gloomy Sunday" and "The Thrill Is Gone," she inserts songs popularized by Johnny Cash, Phil Ochs, even the Supremes. In surprisingly restrained settings, she navigates emotional peaks and valleys lesser vocalists could never uncover in these tunes. In terms of presenting her gifts in an accessible (one uses the term relatively with Galᳩ fashion, this is the record 1992's uneven The Singer aspired to be. Which isn't to say Diamanda is pulling any punches; she just throws them judiciously, with stunning precision.

I was fortunate enough to meet the diva recently. Filled with trepidation as I waited in an East Village cafe, I wondered what she would order for lunch. Bull testicles? The head of John the Baptist? I sat spellbound for 90 minutes before I got my answer: roast turkey on a baguette. Gal᳧ gift for growing to just the right dimension works offstage, too. She didn't distract the other diners, yet commanded my complete attention. She made me laugh like I haven't in a long time. I'd naively overlooked the fact that in order to express anger and sorrow on the scale Gal᳠does, she must boast an equal capacity for humor.

If you've never witnessed Diamanda Gal᳠in action before, don't let timidity or claustrophobia deter you from attending. With force or finesse—and quite possibly both—this remarkable singer will get under your skin, igniting fires in the spaces that lie dormant inside you most days. She will test the capacity of the audience and the four walls surrounding her. Both should remain standing after the applause fades, but you flesh-and-blood types will exit walking a mite taller.

 
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