Cloaca Melodia

My life in concerts, by Mike Sauter.


Tony Clifton and His Katrina Kiss My Ass Orchestra

Rex Theater, Pittsburgh, PA

One of the most unexpected--and unexpectedly great--shows of this year has be seeing Tony Clifton. Before the show, I had no idea what to expect; was this going to be a lame cash-in? Was the joke going to be on the small audience for attending? Regardless, of the answer I didn't want to miss this one.

Clifton, as you may be aware, was a character created by the late performance-art comedian Andy Kaufman. Clifton was partially a satire of a D-list Vegas-style lounge singer with somewhat of a drinking problem and an even greater politeness problem. The character had little in the way of social graces, and was sure to offend nearly everyone in whatever room he happened to be in (those not in on the joke, at least).

But Clifton was primarily another tool for Kaufman to act as agent provocateur both on stage and on TV. In the early days, no one knew Clifton was a Kaufman character and in his appearances audiences and those sharing the stage with Clifton were provoked into hostility by his behavior. I won't go into detail about Clifton's history; read more of it here.

But nearly everybody at Clifton's show was in on the joke, and woe be to the audience member not aware that his truly offensive stage patter was satirical.

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Two of the unexpected elements to this show were a 3 1/2 hour length and a band numbering as many as 19 people including a horn section and a burlesque dance troupe. When Tony Clifton does a show, he goes all out!

Especially considering the small size of the audience. The show was not well promoted. I almost didn't hear about it, and I'm sure there were others who would have loved to see Clifton but didn't know he was coming to town. Clifton himself made repeated reference to the small crowd during the show ("What do we care? There's only ten people here!").

Not only was the concert more extravagant than I expect, but Clifton lived up to his reputation as an offensive troublemaker. During one of the opening numbers, he lit up a cigarette, took a few puffs, and then flicked it still-lit into the audience. He doused the audience multiple times with the contents of his frequently-refilled highball glass (the drinks sloshed into the crowd, at least, was real liquor; I was hit twice and can attest to it being actual whiskey). And between songs, Clifton kept a steady stream of one-liners almost exclusively belittling women and ethnic groups in the most vulgar terms possible (sample: "Why do women get yeast infections? So they know what it's like living with an irritating cunt.").

Clifton (as presumably played now by Kaufman's writing partner Bob Zmuda) kept the spirit of Kaufman's edgy satire alive doing some between-song bits that sought to inspire a gnawing sense of discomfort in the audience. One bit involved a young woman in Clifton's backing ensemble that was a purported refugee from a broken home that Clifton was promising a showbiz break in exchange for her sexual attention. When the scenario was set up, Clifton and the girl really sold the bit with him groping her lasciviously as she awkwardly submitted to his advances. It went on for much too long without much of a payoff--which is exactly the point: to make onlookers wonder if this is actually real.

Similarly, they closed the first set with a blistering rendition of "Black Magic Woman" (more on the great musicianship of the band in a moment). One of the dancers began dancing with plate of candles balanced on her head. After Clifton lit a cigarette from one of the candles, he took out a long dagger and started a sword-swallowing attempt, only to have it end with blood spilling out of his mouth on his tux shirt. One of the other musicians helped Clifton off the stage, and the show's producer took to mic to announce that they would take a short intermission to determine whether Tony was okay. Despite using an obvious theatrical prop dagger, it was effective enough at giving a moment's pause: "Could that have been real? Nah? Well...."

But the show couldn't have been as entertaining as it was without such a kick-ass band. Clifton was backed by a core rock section of guitar, bass, drums, and two keyboardists; added to this was a 4-piece horn section (occasionally augmented by a 5th player on baritone sax) and two female backing vocalists. In an inspired piec eof showcraft, the horn section all had wireless mics so they were able to parade around the theater during several amazing instrumental jams. The first time they did this early on in the first set, it occurred to me that this was going to be a real show, with real music, answering those pre-show questions I had.

Clifton was pitch-perfect, not in his singing (which was better than I expected, although not up to the task of a more melodic number like Gordon Lightfoot's "Sundown"), but in his subtle-by-route-of-bombast send-up of low-grade Vegas-style showmanship. The aformentioned "Sundown" was played as a tribute to Lightfoot who, we were told by Clifton, "just died earlier today." That the Canadian singer was alive and well was the punchline, and one that would likely be a time-delayed one for some in the audience who perhaps took Clifton at face-value in his tribute (the tip-off should have been when a votive-type flame was brought out at the start of the tribute, only to end up used by the stage entourage as fodder for campfire marshmallows).

Other songs performed include showbizzy fare like "Ain't That A Kick In The Head," "Daddy Don't You Walk So Fast," "Goldfinger," "Rhinestone Cowboy," his infamous "Volare" medley, and for the final encore, "God Bless America."

He also did a take on some familiar rock/pop tunes like "Synchronicity II," "Touch Me," and "I Will Survive."

photo by Brian Siewiorek

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