Described as the ‘grammy-nominated godfathers of alternative cabaret’, The Tiger Lillies take us on an eclectic journey into all things dissident and dark in Devil’s Fairground – but at moments withdraw from truly captivating their audience.
With an album titled Devil’s Fairground, one can only expect the critically acclaimed and anarchic Tiger Lillies to transform Wilton’s Hall into a twisted fantasy. The main vocalist has an amalgamation of a Jack White and Jake Shears quality to his voice, with a strong falsetto that contrasts with his foreboding appearance. The makeup is what I imagine the Insane Clown Posse would look like if they were British, more dandyish and more…well, experienced. We get the sense of the band having seen the world and regarded all of its contents with disdain. There’s also something Tim Burton-esque about their configuration – and before they even sing, it is beguiling. As the lead vocalist croons “it’s always a pleasure to share misery and pain” during their first song, it’s clear that we’ll be foraying into bleak territory in Devil’s Fairground. In the next song, we are warned that we “won’t make it out alive.” The ennui the band previously exuded is immediately replaced with menace.
Make no mistake, Tiger Lillies are masters of their craft and early into their performance, we see just how skilled they are. One of the instrumentalists deftly jumps from playing the cello, to the Theremin, to the guitar, and then a saw. Yes, an actual saw. Beautifully at that but more so, he switches between them all as if it were nothing. Both the Theremin and the saw (struck with cello strings) add a haunting, warbling texture that creates an ethereal atmosphere to the songs they accompany. The main vocalist also hops from accordion to piano to playing just the fretboard of the guitar. Both alternate between their instruments with such a world-weariness that you almost forget the immense skill that is required to master just the one.
Deeper into The Devil’s Fairground, we are confronted with a song that, upon listening further, is actually about taking a ‘holiday’ with the KGB and experiencing torture. Just as they interchange their instruments, they also slide between an assortment of differing topics ranging from the metaphysical (“well those dead souls know how to dance”) to the very very corporal (“I wonder who it is that stuck a heroin needle in your vein”). The audience is expected to listen to the contents of each song, and is kept on their toes as the group refuses to be pinned down by a singular genre or narrative.
Whilst we’re presented with a hypnotic aesthetic and engrossing body of music, it is hard to shake off the feeling that something is missing. The group feels distant from the audience and the interactive nature of a cabaret is non-existent throughout the performance. We do feel the raw emotions present in the stories they conjure, but don’t feel fully immersed in them. One can imagine how truly dynamic their collaborations with “Shakespearean actors; experimental dancers and avant-garde photographers; burlesque puppeteers and classical music ensembles” could be, but this particular performance feels like a fraction of how enrapturing they truly are. Even at moments where the vocals swell into vitriolic fervour, there’s is this feeling that it is still somehow insular. It makes it hard to fully connect with the performance – and we lose the rebellious nature of the group.
In one song, Tiger Lillies announce “our music is dirty, our music is queer.” Indeed it is, but Devil’s Fairground ultimately lacks the riotous punch that makes cabaret so enthralling and exhilarating.