The decadent culture of Weimar Germany – itself inspired by the American Jazz Age – has long proved a fertile source of inspiration for artists everywhere. David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Klaus Nomi, Ute Lemper, and Alan Cumming are just a few of the performers that have mined and reinvented the Weimar era in their music. Based on his new release Live at Joe’s Pub, cabaret vocalist Kim David Smith deserves to be added to that esteemed list. Captured in March 2019 at a midnight show in that intimate New York setting, Smith weaves a spell largely inspired by, but not limited to, Marlene Dietrich and the seedy yet alluring Weimar milieu. One can practically smell the cigarette smoke and lingering perfume aroma listening to Smith’s songs of danger, love, and lust accompanied by just piano and bass courtesy of musical director Tracy Stark and bassist Skip Ward, respectively.
Smith boldly begins his journey in Berlin with “Pirate Jenny” from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. Introduced by Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya onstage in 1928, the dark revenge ballad was subsequently recorded by artists the caliber of Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Marianne Faithfull, Patti LuPone, and Bea Arthur. It also inspired Alan Moore to craft his graphic novel magnum opus Watchmen and was referenced in both the film version and television series. Once Smith proves he can bring something new to this most familiar of cabaret songs, he further draws the listener into this louche world with just the right amounts of humor and menace.
Though the onetime model cuts quite a striking figure, the album succeeds without the visuals he undoubtedly brought to the stage at Joe’s Pub. His expressive, clear voice as a storyteller shines on Weill and Brecht’s “Barbara Song” as melded with Friedrich Hollaender’s “I Don’t Know Who I Belong To” (plus a touch of “Someday My Prince Will Come”). In 1933, the German Jewish composer fled his homeland, first for Paris and then for the United States. In the U.S., as Frederick Hollander, he scored over one hundred films. As with “I Don’t Know Who I Belong To,” most of Hollaender’s songs were closely associated with Marlene Dietrich. Another is “Jonny,” a typically vampy (and campy) specialty of the legendary singer-actress which she released as a single in 1931. William Bolcom and Arnold Weinstein’s “Song of Black Max” conjures the same red-light district mood.
It’s happily difficult to pigeonhole Smith. He’s performed tribute shows to Dietrich and to his fellow Australian, Kylie Minogue, and has portrayed the Emcee in Cabaret onstage; director Bob Fosse’s Academy Award-winning film version of that Kander and Ebb musical proved his gateway to the music of Weimar Berlin. He’s recorded albums of electropop, too, so it’s not surprising that his musical choices are wide-ranging. Smith and Stark reinvent The Supremes’ 1966 chart-topper “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” in dark, highly theatrical, Weill-inspired style, while comparisons to another Brecht/Weill fan, David Bowie, are underscored by the inclusion in the setlist of “Nature Boy” which Bowie recorded for Baz Luhrmann’s splashy film Moulin Rouge.
New wave group Toto Coelo’s “Dracula’s Tango (Sucker for Your Love)” ups the camp factor. Though it failed to chart in the U.S., it was a hit throughout Europe and in Smith’s home of Australia. Still, the most captivating moments on Live at Joe’s Pub derive from Smith’s clear affection for Dietrich and those who followed her. Russian-born composer Mischa Spoliansky’s novelty song “Ich bin ein Vamp!” is perhaps most linked to another Dietrich disciple, Ute Lemper. She also recorded Hollaender’s “A Little Yearning,” a bold assertion of the power of lust and desire rendered with zeal by Smith.
Hollaender’s “Illusions” (a highlight of Dietrich’s film A Foreign Affair) and Stock Aitken Waterman’s “I Should Be So Lucky” from Kylie Minogue’s first album make for another tasty mash-up. Smith additionally delivers her “All the Lovers.” It stands out in the Joe’s Pub set for its straightforward pop delivery and arrangement, but Smith pulls it off with the same conviction as his more heavily stylized material. Indeed, the original song “Shooting Star” is one of the album’s most heartfelt moments.
Live at Joe’s Pub is a tight, 16-song affair that hardly wears out its welcome. He encores with a quiet but effective rendition of Golden Rainbow and Bajour tunesmith Walter Marks’ ironically rollicking “The Singer,” the title song of Liza Minnelli’s 1973 Columbia album. “In a small café on a crowded night/In a spot of light stands the singer,” goes Marks’ lyric. “Then the band begins and the beat is strong/And the room belongs to the singer.” Whether you were in attendance at Joe’s Pub or are listening at home on CD or digital/streaming, the room belongs to Kim David Smith.