Please, don't think any less of Leah Callahan just because she is performing in the basement of a drag bar tonight. She'll be the first to explain that the club was really not her first choice.
"I wanted to do it in a bathhouse. Do you know of any around here?" she asks between healthy sips of her apple martini. "I read about Bette Midler and her wild days in the bathhouses, and she was so ahead of her time. That's the kind of vibe I'm trying to create."
Much the way that Midler enjoyed a bawdy run on the bathhouse circuit of the 1970s, Callahan, a veteran of the Boston bands Turkish Delight and Betwixt, is reinventing herself as a neo-cabaret solo artist at Jacques. On the second Friday of each month, the basement of the Bay Village drag club, which goes by the name Jacques Underground, is transformed into something called Raw Bar. It often takes on the surrealist hue of an Eastern Bloc circus: There are Callahan's songs, which are rooted in European cabaret but flirt with bossa nova and jazz, plus comedians, performance artists, rock chicks, and goth guys. Tonight there's even a Lynyrd Skynyrd-influenced band that plays Prince covers.
"We have this really great vibe," she says of the series, which is now in its seventh month. "I hate to say anything bad about Jacques, because I love them, but it's seedy, it's sleazy, it's smelly, it's really totally great. You can have a drunk drag queen turn up onstage during your set, and you just have to deal with it. I'm not the meek little thing I was when I started singing there. It's given me a lot of confidence."
It seems difficult to picture Callahan as meek. The word that comes to mind first is smoldering, followed by feisty. She has survived the "implosion" of her two bands only to relaunch herself as a turn-of-the-20th-century chanteuse with a slightly naughty edge.
"She's not just a technician," says Brian Viglione, drummer for the punk cabaret band Dresden Dolls. "She's a great creator of mood, using body language, facial expressions, and interactions with the crowd to build momentum in her performance."
In addition to charting a new musical direction for herself by revisiting the drama and glamour of cabaret, she's spreading her musical gospel throughout Boston by organizing multiple cabaret nights.
Fed up with what she sees as an elitist local music scene, Callahan started booking her own multi-act shows, providing a home for musicians and performers on the fringe. In addition to Raw Bar at Jacques, she also organizes two shows in Somerville: the Working Stiff Cabaret at Johnny D's the second Monday of each month, and Le Cabaret des Enfants Terribles at P.A.'s Lounge the last Saturday of each month. Go to www.boston.com/ae/music to hear clips of the CD "Even Sleepers."Although the tone of these shows differs, her mission for each is to showcase bands that would have a difficult time getting gigs at clubs on their own. Callahan even placed an ad in a local zine requesting bands that were "low maintenance and high mischief" to perform at her nights.
"I really don't like the uprightness in Boston," she says. "The indie rock scene is really boring. I just thought that instead of complaining about it, I would do something about it. I book acts sight unseen, sound unheard. And they just come and blow me away. Sometimes it's just chaos. I think we're re-creating a scene that I studied in college."
And it's not just Callahan's cabaret series that recalls another era.
"Leah is exceptionally charismatic and an obviously gifted performer," says Shaun Wolf Wortis, producer of Callahan's album "Even Sleepers." "But I think what really sets her apart from others is her ability to tell the story of the song she's singing. In that respect, she's really a throwback to a much older era of performers."
Callahan attributes her old-world perspective to the music lessons she received as a girl growing up in a working-class Lowell neighborhood. Her teacher primarily taught Callahan a pre-World War II catalog of music, and these melodies, along with the ethnic harmonies she absorbed in her Polish school, would help determine her future musical direction.
She quit music lessons at age 16 when she was discouraged by her mother from pursuing a career as an opera singer. After that, she did the next logical thing: She became a radical feminist, majoring in women's studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and shaving her head.
"Before college, I had these dreams of being an opera singer, the next Siouxsie Sioux, or a nun," she says. "But I would be a punk nun. Obviously that didn't work out."
She rediscovered music after college, returning to the Boston area and joining Turkish Delight, an arty noise rock band. She then sang for three years with Betwixt, a quirky and eclectic band that developed a healthy local following.
After those bands dissolved, she collaborated with a few musicians locally before deciding to put out a solo record.
"All of a sudden I was alone. I had always written songs with three other people," she says. "And when I was alone, all of these influences came pouring out. I didn't set out to write a cabaret album. I had just been a sponge for so many years, and all those Marlene Dietrich and Mae West films were channeled into my songs."
After craving a solo career, Callahan is now beginning to put together a new band, which includes an accordionist, a guitarist, and a Latin drummer. She doesn't quite know what the results will be, but true to fashion, she seems content to simply go along for the ride.
"I really don't have a specific direction in mind," she says as she begins work on apple martini number two. "Probably for the first time in my life, I'm just enjoying myself and having fun."
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.