Joseph Keckler‘s genre-blurring show crams the vocal power of opera, the subject matter of standup comedy, and the creative methodologies of both an art filmmaker and a singer-songwriter into a cabaret setting. If you have to read that sentence twice, go ahead; it took me 10 minutes to come up with it. Keckler, a bass-baritone with a three-and-a-half-octave vocal range, stretches boundaries like a psychedelic dream.Backed by pianist Matthew Dean Marsh and violinist-arranger Dan Bartfield, Keckler treated a sold-out crowd at the Pangea supper club to a springtime bloom of languid, erudite energy right from the opening of the show with Seneca’s deep basso aria from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. Thus establishing his operatic bona fides, he launched into a musical-comedic storytelling sequence with songs and monologues drawn from his own experiences and tastes, all with a sparkle of coolly winning sincerity.
The first of two musical videos illustrated the tedium of a day job – and a fantastical escape therefrom to the goth shadows of St. Marks Place. A second video, even more drily droll, dramatized the Alice in Wonderland paranoia of a bad mushroom trip. Rather than sapping energy from the live show, as video elements often do in a small venue, these twistedly entertaining pieces expanded our perspective on Keckler’s multifaceted creativity.
Keckler’s sensibility reminds me of the creative restlessness of other chameleon-polymaths – David Bowie, Yo-Yo Ma, or David Byrne, for example – but, in this setting at least, on an intimate scale. For an encore, the audience got a sequence of short songs from various sources and in various styles – from blues to Henry Purcell’s baroque opera Dido and Aeneas – each more unexpected than the next. He has one of those rare voices that can make something beguilingly personal from just about any material.
The wandering nature of the show suggests he’s searching for a focus. The combination of an effortlessly enormous voice and a wide-ranging creative spirit surely can make directionality a challenge. Fortunately for us, he shows no signs of drifting into either the pseudo-operatic pop territory of a Josh Groban or the floating indecisiveness of a Tim Buckley. As evidenced by past engagements, such as his performance in Rimbaud in New York at BAM, where I first heard him, he has big-stage magnetism, as well as small-crowd charm, to go with his chops.
Backed by talented colleagues (Marsh was also Rimbaud in New York‘s music director, and violinist Bartfield composed Keckler’s lush, exuberantly anxious string arrangements), Joseph Keckler is a force of nature from any perspective. He returns to Pangea on July 21 and will appear at Ancram Opera House in the Hudson Valley on September 3.