The Legend of Laurel Casey – Providence Monthly

A review published in Providence Monthly‘s 150th issue:

New Vaudeville

The legend of Laurel Casey continues…


According to legend, Laurel Casey – singer, performance artist, satirist and painter – came to Providence at the invitation of then-mayor Buddy Cianci because it was a haven for artists. She went on to both acclaim and notoriety here, but now Laurel says the city who once embraced has her feeling like a jilted lover.  Admittedly, post-Renaissance Providence could make any musician feel that way, let alone a self-proclaimed “new vaudevillian/underground clown” specializing in “the Great American Songbook.”  Those club owners who don’t know her, don’t know what they’re missing.  Those who do – well let’s just say they know what they’re missing all too well.

Rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote of the performance that made him an Alice Cooper fan.  An audience member threw a cream pie in the singer’s face mid-song; Cooper fed off the hostility, smearing the pie all over as the show went on.  Bangs wondered how many egotistical rock gods, faced with such a challenge, would have haughtily stormed off as if the sanctity of their hallowed stage had been violated.  Laurel Casey takes this one step further: she violates the sanctity of the audience, interacting with people in such a way that passively enjoying the show from a safe distance is not an option.  She’s constantly rewriting the script, redefining herself. – “I don’t even exist,” – she remarked at a recent performance, “I’m just a hologram” – which in turn redefines her relationship to the audience, which in turn forces the audience members to redefine themselves.  Are they passive observers or unwitting parts of the show?

Her ongoing campaign to revive the concept of the in-home salon/cabaret (“the Underground Providence Bohemian Revival of 2009”) illustrates this phenomenon perfectly.  A recent “group painting installation and drinks party” gathered friends and strangers at a private residence to paint freeform while Laurel provided the soundtrack.  It was not a performance really, but a “happening.”  “Do whatever you want,” she instructed.  “Drink. Paint. Go upstairs and jerk off.  No one’s going to tell you what to do.”

Predictably, this is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Laurel is known for audience baiting, exposing herself, extemporaneously rewriting songs, biting the hand that feeds her and rabble-rousing outbursts.  She has been kicked out of almost as many clubs as she’s played.  If Providence has her feeling jilted, she’s not entirely blameless.  Therein lies the tragedy of Laurel Casey’s career: if she would play the game, even just a little bit, her talent could bring her success.  Of course, if she did that, would she still be the provocative, thrilling and brilliantly satirical performer her devoted fans have come to love?

Maybe that’s why lately Laurel has taken to declaring, “I’m not a singer anymore; I’m a painter.”  At that “group painting,” she was auctioning off some of her canvasses.  “You’ll have a little piece of Laurel Casey you can take home with you,” she remarked.  It seems fitting.  In a city she feels has rejected her, there must be some comfort in knowing that a little piece of her will have a semi-permanent place in Providence that the whole may never find.  Can’t this city do better than that?  Can’t it reward a performer willing to sacrifice success to challenge assumptions and accepted niceties? Can’t a city that fancies itself the “Creative Capital” find a little plac for one of its most unappreciated treasures?  More to the point: doesn’t some club owner want a throng of devoted fans to show up to his bar every week and stick around all night buying drinks?

Laurel Casey will be performing at 2pm on May 3 at Twin River’s Lighthouse bar, and again at 8 PM on May 7 at the Alibi Café in the Jewelry District.  Go and experience her.  Go and show her that even if the relationship is rocky at times, Providence still loves her after all.

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