Burlesque shows roll through Bremerton & Bainbridge on the same night
March 13, 2009 · Updated 9:35 PM
Which begs the question, what's been driving the 21st century resurgence of the vaudeville-era art form.
Big John Bates didn’t always have scantily clad burlesque girls anchoring each side of the stage.
Before he was Big John Bates, he was just John Bates. In high school he started a metal band with guitarist Jeff Waters that would eventually go on to become “legendary” in Europe.
But Bates walked away from it, early in the game, citing both creative and personal differences. Four dudes playing loud, screaming metal just wasn’t his bag.
He knew that he didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing, and he knew that wanted to involve more women on stage. His now-ex-wife was then an exotic dancer, and at the time, the performance art of burlesque was just beginning its resurgence, just as Bates was finding his way to psychobilly (and blaming it all on the Cramps).
It all came together at exactly the same time, he said — the psychobilly, the burlesque, and the new band — and therein lay the creation of Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz — a three-piece psychobilly band flanked by burlesque dancers in ravishing costumes, traveling the world as the self-termed Low Brow Road Show.
“A lot of people want that, you know, they want to see a show,” Bates said. “We’re a good band, but we’re a great show.”
Eight world tours and four albums since 2001 (with a new album and another world tour slated for this spring) will attest. Without hardly even flirting with the mainstream, Bates and crew have amassed a worldwide following in the underground, built largely on word of mouth generated by the salacious stage show.
“The funny thing is,” Bates said. “I find this in Europe and America and Canada, it seems the higher the awareness of the show, the better the reception ... I wish I could get a big megaphone out and tell the world: This is simply fun.”
The Vancouver B.C.-based band will bring their fun to Bremerton this weekend, playing Winterland March 14 with Hot Roddin Romeos and James Hunnicutt.
And while Big John Bates’ psychobilly (a more frenzied type of rockabilly style music, pioneered by groups like Cramps) is gritty and wicked and infectiously danceable, it’s fair to say more than a few folks who make it out to the show that night might be there more to see the Voodoo Dollz’ dance.
“I love rolling into a place and having someone ask me ‘Are you with the band?’ and I say ‘No, they’re with me, I’m the show,’” said Tristan Risk, aka Little Miss Risk, ringleader for Big John Bates’ touring burlesque girls.
And it’s not just wide-eyed dudes with their jaws on the floor that make up the audience for Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz. While there are, of course, a fair amount of dudes, the typical crowd, Bates said, is usually about 50 percent female. Which is surprisingly not an unfamiliar percentage attending an actual burlesque show.
Ever since the early 2000s, the burlesque resurgence has been making a burgeoning comeback across North America. Burlesque festivals are held annually in New York, Toronto, Las Vegas and Vancouver. The new burlesque, often termed neo-burlesque, came out of the third wave feminist movement, Little Miss Risk noted, the by-women, for-women empowerment movement which also brought about roller girls and the like.
It’s gotten to the point now, where on just about any night of the week in Seattle, or really any major city, you’re likely find some form of a burlesque show, said Suzanna Welbourne, co-founder, aka Kitten LaRue of the Seattle-based burlesque troupe The Atomic Bombshells.
“When we first started doing shows here (in 2003), it wasn’t like that,” she added. “The Bombshells were the only weekly show in town.”
As a sort of rural testament to the performance art’s continued rise in popularity, the very same night that Big John Bates and the Voodoo Dollz play Bremerton, the Bombshells will be bringing their new burlesque spectacular “J’Adore” to the Bainbridge Performing Arts playhouse for one-night-only 8 p.m. March 14.
The last time they came through in 2007, tickets sold out.
Since their debut at the Showbox with burlesque star Dita Von Tease, the Bombshells have become Seattle’s leading burlesque troupe. In addition to being the first to bring burlesque to the Triple Door and regularly selling out shows there as well as a few other venues in town, the troupe regularly tours the nation and was recently pegged to bring burlesque back to Shanghai, China.
“Someone scouted us,” Welbourne said, “and there was a booker over there who wanted to be the first to bring burlesque back to Shanghai.”
And so they did, performing to sold out audiences in one of Shanghai’s biggest theaters. They’ve played similar sold out events in Amsterdam and Berlin and Portugal as well.
All of which sounds pretty prestigious, but also begs the question, what exactly is the new burlesque? And what’s driving the resurgence?
The allure seems simple enough. But contrary to what its most widely known for, burlesque isn’t just a striptease. In a world bombarded with explicit images and sexual innuendo, burlesque is “fresh in its old-fashionedness” LaRue said.
Traditional burlesque grew out of the vaudeville-era as a form of social commentary and even mockery, pushing the envelope both intellectually and socially as dancers slyly and seductively shed their clothes. The word burlesque itself is defined as “a parody or comically exaggerated imitation of something,” used in reference to a literary device.
In an interview with the Seattle Times early in 2002, Miss Indigo Blue (another member of the Atomic Bombshells who also runs Seattle’s Burlesque Academy) noted that people argue all the time over what is or isn’t burlesque. But the truth is, she said, burlesque can be anything.
It embodies everything vampy, trampy and kitsch, a throwback to the glamour days of the 20s and 30s mixed in with the raw DIY aesthetic of punk rock.
And, while other aspects may often steal the show, its still rooted in that tradition of social challenge.
“There’s still people who do a lot of politically based burlesque, sometimes they don’t even take anything off, they’re just up there doing their own political things with the status quo or double standards or whatever,” Little Miss Risk noted. “There very much is still a social commentary within burlesque, but it’s like who doesn’t like (breasts)? That’s my ultra-progressive liberal statement.”
BIG JOHN BATES AND THE VOODOO DOLLZ come through town at 9:30 p.m. March 14 for a show with Hot Roddin Romeos and James Hunnicutt at Winterland, 1220 Sylvan Way in Bremerton. 21+, $7 cover. Info: www.bigjohnbates.com, www.voodoodollz.com, www.myspace.com/winterlandrocks or call (360) 479-5686.
THE ATOMIC BOMBSHELLS return to Bainbridge with their new show “J’Adore” at 8 p.m. March 14 at the Bainbridge Performing Arts Playhouse, 200 Madison Ave. on Bainbridge. Tickets are $20. Info: www.theatomicbombshells.com, www.bainbridgeperformingarts.org or call (206) 842-8569.