Saturday 20 July 2019

Cabaret crooner in danger of becoming a novelty act

Ed Power

Baby Dee Whelan's Dublin

Settling behind her piano, corkscrews of red hair tumbling from beneath a leopard-print hood, Baby Dee, a 50-something transgender cabaret crooner from Brooklyn, presents a curious sight. She is burly and awkward in a Honey Monster-goes-drag kind of way, yet her playing is tender and ethereal, illuminated with passages of exuberant sweetness and shiver-inducing delicacy.

Back in New York, Dee has taken a peculiar route to cultish celebrity.

A sometime associate of Antony Hegarty, the original gender-bending piano basher, she has worked as a performance artist (unicycle tricks a speciality), tree surgeon, children's entertainer and church organist.

As you might expect then, Dee has a taste for exhibitionism, a trait which steamrolls the gentler elements of her repertoire.


The major stumbling block is Dee's voice, a wavering croak which she pushes into strange trajectories. This is a shame because, as a musician, she soars and dives with often breathtaking elegance, tiptoeing through compositions so densely arranged that, in the hands of a less-talented player, they would collapse in upon themselves.

Such contradictions are writ large on Dee's latest record, 'Safe Inside The Day'.

She waxes melancholic but just when you are ready to be won over, Dee, backed by bassist and drummer, will skewer the melody or lurch towards a higher octave, a warning to those who would take her sad, strange ballads at face value.

When she clambers behind a harp, we are plunged into full-fledged vaudeville, her falsetto wavering between a thrill and a yelp. Dee tries hard to impress upon us that she isn't just another singer-songwriter peddling a songbook full of woe. But by playing hard to get she risks becoming the one thing she surely dreads: a novelty act.

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