Washington was finally baptized in the ballyhooed Taylor Mac experience Tuesday night, and resistance was futile. With Mac ringleading in monumental, glittery drag that included bobbing wings as he entered down the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater aisle, the American songbook was snapped inside out (“Dixie” gets savaged) and occasionally played for its raw natural power as the ever-dangerous “Gimme Shelter” just plain rocked.
The 2½ -hour performance was merely a tenth of the 24-hour “A 24 Decade History of Popular Music,” yet this abridged version gives you a good idea of how the full extravaganza plays out. “Sometimes we sing songs we hate just so we can turn them into things we love,” Mac told Vulture in 2016, and Ted Nugent’s homophobic “Snakeskin Cowboys” was the tipping point when Tuesday’s show fully won the slightly reluctant audience.
“We’re going to have to reappropriate that stuff,” Mac said, using a stronger noun at the end. Moments later, the entire crowd was blissfully same-sex slow-dancing in the aisles and even on the stage to a slow, dreamy version of the song that Mac hoped would kill Nugent.
The selections reached back to early Americana that includes a carping song about Congress and a take that reduced “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to a mournful dirge. Audience members are press-ganged into participation — Mac unapologetically promises to make you uncomfortable — and he sings “Only You” to three white males led to the stage after he says, “Let’s sacrifice the patriarchy.”
Yelling counterrevolutionary invective between the lines of the reactionary “Dixie” may seem on the nose, but Mac — who prefers the genderfluid pronoun “judy” — is not about to let repressive history lie unchallenged. The Eisenhower is not an easy venue for Mac’s camp teardowns and drag imperiousness, though the Kennedy Center is working to rebrand itself as more cutting edge; this launches the center’s two-week Direct Current festival of contemporary performance. During the first act you could feel a cool standoff at times between Mac’s gay nightclub aesthetic and the button-down crowd.
But Mac’s inhibition-crushing gambits and the fascinatingly arranged music grew increasingly galvanizing and even cathartic, powered by musical director and pianist Matt Ray’s seven-piece band (plus stellar backing vocalists Steffanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis). The rock core of piano, bass, guitar and drums gained color and range from the slide trombone, trumpet and violin, and the inventively mashed-up rock numbers revved the show into a very high gear.
The western ditty “Don’t Fence Me In” segued into “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” with Viva DeConcini playing a shimmering guitar solo that eventually soared with noise, like jets piercing clouds. The Bowie State pep band marched in for David Bowie’s “Heroes,” rattling percussion from the drum line and hitting the crowd with big, bright blasts of horns.
That’s a G-rated version of Mac’s usual over-the-top 1970s sexual revolution “Heroes” treatment that features giant inflated penises, which may explain why he occasionally shot the audience a look of patronizing indulgence. If you only knew.
Mac’s singing has always drawn David Bowie comparisons, and it’s inevitable, despite his pushback show “Comparison Is Violence, or The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook.” It’s a glam-rock power croon, tuneful and strong, and he brings an actor’s expressiveness to the lyrics. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” was a highlight as the band chugged and Mac roared with energy that grew furious, and the evening crested with a smashing arrangement that put “Turn, Turn, Turn” right on top of Henry Mancini’s sinister noir “Peter Gunn” theme. Mac snarled the refrain “unto heaven!” while writhing in green light, dressed at that point in a shredded gown of pink and blue streamers with dangling stars (the costumes are by Machine Dazzle).
The stringy wig had come off by then, and even with its fits and starts you felt you’d really gone somewhere. Mac is performing the full 24-hour version around the country; now that a toe has dipped into the water, someone should take the plunge and bring D.C. the entire wicked, beatific adventure.