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Olivia Newton-John; Matt Zarley
BENT NIGHTS: MUSIC Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Vern Hester
2012-08-21

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Earlier this summer when I mentioned to my cousin Omar and his husband, Bertas, that Olivia Newton-John would be headlining Northalsted Market Days they shrieked in unison, "OH NO!!! HAS IT COME TO THAT?!!??" The very idea that one of the biggest pop stars of all time was reduced to playing a street festival, regardless of said festival's cache, sounds, well, sad—right?

Newton-John's last big hit was in 1982 but the reality is that Omar and Bertas' reaction points to a facet of fame: If you are not in the spotlight, it's assumed that you are on the skids. The truth is Newton-John has been occupied with other things (a new cookbook, overcoming breast cancer, more movies and opening her own wellness center) while finding time to parody herself (popping up on Sordid Lives as a lesbian and dueting with Jane Lynch on "Physical" for an episode of Glee). Her festival closing set Aug. 12 may have been short (45 minutes) but her breathless fans left with smiles plastered on their faces. Even I—a cold, bitter, cynic with metal shavings in his heart—left happy.

What ramped up the excitement was that all of the people around me who I spoke with had never had the chance to see Newton-John live and though she's been under the radar for decades, this crowd was as passionate as ever, and she did not disappoint. (An unfortunate drag queen who just HAD to wear an oversized hat was bluntly informed by the fans pressed behind the barricade that they were not having her.)

Never mind Xanadu, the 1980 bomb that ended Gene Kelly's career, almost closed the book on movie musicals forever (Can't Stop the Music gets credit for that) and re-emerged as a camp classic with a reputation for being so bad it's irresistible; she opened her set with the title song and set a tone of sugary comfort. After all, who cares what the cynics and critics say? "Xanadu" and everything that came after it were songs that the fans have loved almost as long as Newton-John herself. The hits were laced with surprises: "Magic" was winsome and dreamy, "Physical" came with aerobic exercises, "Hopelessly Devoted to You" had unusual depth, Matt Zarley and Steve Real joined her on "Hot Summer Nights" and—due to a technical glitch—"Let Me Be There" was performed a capella as a sing-along with musical cues the audience shared.

If the show was an Olivia lovefest for longtime rabid fans, it was also a revelation. Time and age have provided Newton-John with multiple blessings. Where she used to sound wispy, artificial and—to my ears—annoying, she has developed an edge and grit in her voice while maintaining her upper registers. In short, she sounds better than she ever did. Don't worry if you missed her this time: She plays the Paramount Theater in Aurora Nov. 10.

Due to this year's collision of talent at several of the stages I was only able to catch the tail end of Zarley's set, which, for me, was the one disappointment of this year's Market Days. A decade ago, People Magazine named Zarley one of its sexiest bachelors but rather than coasting on being recognized as extremely talented and a certified hunk, he turned heads by coming out and using his new platform to push LGBT rights ahead a good 20 years.

Not only did he teach Bono, GaGa, Cyndi Lauper and Elton John how to use fame to influence closed minds, but he did it with a voice few others could approach. Live, Zarley radiates the high-wattage power of a rock star with the collar-grabbing emotional pull of a Broadway seasoned belter from the Tin Pan Alley era. His most recent album, Change Begins With Me (Zarleysongs, 2011), is proof that he's still at the top of his game while the queercentric video for "Trust Me" takes a satiric bite out of political image mongering. "Trust Me" is funny, snarky, saucy and sexy, and says obvious things in new ways while subtly ripping conservative minds a new one. Whether in a hot tub stocked with naked (male) bodies or high-kicking in a monkey-suited chorus line, Zarley packs a set of jagged, sharp incisors under that pretty smile.

When I mentioned that his set was the disappointment of the fest for me, it had nothing to do with him or his performance and everything to do with not being able to see more of it. What I did get to see was his thunderous show-stopping reading of the song "Change Begins with Me," a break-up ballad fueled with the wisdom that he is just as responsible for his separation as the other guy. It's a heartbreaker steeped in blunt objectivity where the blame is squarely put in the right places with unguarded clarity. It's also a declaration of a man who is wise enough to own his own shit, take responsibility for it, and grow up. Candid, painful, raw and unequivocal, it packs an intimate punch where, say, Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" seemed obtuse and preachy. Like Newton-John, Zarley can't seem to help getting better with age. Vocally, he's got more punch and power than ever before while, physically, he has developed a hunky, meaty masculinity that's ripened his model-good looks into a feral manliness. AHEM...


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