NINA HAGEN as part of Vazaleen at Lee's Palace, June 25. Tickets: $25. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNNN
Standing outside Lee's Palace in a crowd of alterna-queers, retro punk rockers and bent straight folk late Friday night, I heard a smoky rasp that erupted into guttural laughter. Standing on the street was a gargantuan figure swathed in a PVC frock, teetering platforms, a Medusa spray of teased hair and the telltale blue face paint that Nina Hagen-as-Shiva sports on the cover of her Big Band Explosion disc. My first thought? That's so cool - a punk goddess communing with the plebes. But it wasn't Nina Hagen. It was just a convincing gender-bent facsimile. Number-one sign that you're in the presence of an iconic diva? She's got drag queens copping her steez.
Lee's was crammed with throngs of Hagen avatars of all genders and stripes, replicating looks from various stages of her career. And as soon as the Teutonic star stepped onstage and purred the first line of Let Me Entertain You, they howled and clapped, then suddenly dissolved into the kind of rapt reverence you see in kindergartners during storytime.
A little bit Liza in Cabaret, a little bit Fabulous Baker Boys and a little bit Amsterdam peepshow, the charismatic Hagen lolled on the floor feeding strawberries to the crowd, shook her cleavage and arched her back into high kicks, all while cooing jazzy standards like Fever (which became an Eartha Kittenish "Feverrrrrrrrrrr" in Hagen's Deutsche cadence) and the cheesy Moroder-goes-punk tunes that brought her fame in the 80s.
Clad in a frou-frou vinyl French maid's get-up and dramatic glamourpuss makeup, Hagen oozed sex appeal even when she mopped her brow and blew her nose with a Kleenex, which she did repeatedly throughout the set.
Her band, which she introduced as "the Nina Hagens," was pretty tight, in that bar-band-playing-classic-covers way. A quartet of dudes in Hawaiian shirts juxtaposed against the larger-than-life doll-like Hagen, they added to the surreal spectacle.
She may have sung standards, but Hagen hasn't lost her edge. The formerly outspoken animal rights activist courted controversy Friday night by trumpeting PSAs for alternative AIDS philosophies ("HIV won't make you die," she sang, holding up a copy of a friend's book) and drawing a parallel between the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the liberation of concentration camps after the second world war.
The woman's stamina is phenomenal. She kept the energy sky-high for well over an hour. Even the buxom babe blatantly giving head to a dude on top of a table - just part of the bizarre Vazaleen spectacle - couldn't pull the focus away from Hagen's performance.