Friday Night Sass Attack
It's almost midnight at Walter's on Washington (as Friday night turns into Saturday morning) and the crowd—a melange of Band-Aids, twentysomething hipsters and teenage girls dressed in outrageous gem sweaters and metallic accoutrements—eagerly shouts and squirms to the music of Leslie and the LYs. Two backup girls, donning mammonth white tiger heads, bounce around the stage as frontwoman Leslie Hall, a 200-pound-plus vision in a shimmering gold lame unitard, raps about fitting into tight pants.
Work that elastic, it's looking fantastic
Tell yourself you're a vessel of shimmy
And activate your dance floor kitty
When I place my legs in a cage of spandex
I dance like hell to release the madness
Watch out for my body rolls
High kicks/High kicks
This is how we do it
Her dance mimics the lyrics as she raps the chorus, and one of her stray “high kicks” hits a projector that has been providing the audience with streaming music videos, as well as mashed-up '80s at-home exercise footage. An audience member, decked out in a sequined power suit in tribute to Ms. Hall, discreetly re-adjusts the projector, effectively saving the night. After the number, Hall reaches out in thanks for the random act of kindness.
“You know I love the Texas-sized portions and the Texas-sized kindness in this soggy town,” she earnestly giggles. Then a flash of terror crosses her face as she shouts, “But watch out Houston! Because you’re about to get BEAT-DAZZLED!”
Part haughty MC, part ironic art student and part Midwestern balladeer, Hall represents the most powerful sass attack coming out of rural central Iowa in years, as she instructs her audience with lyrics like “Line the pan with Crisco before you dance this disco.” Her surprisingly impressive vocal range that can break down raucous rhymes over a smart synth beat, together with her silver-clad minions, make for a most memorable performance art piece.
Hall first achieved fame in her hometown for sporting bedazzled gem sweaters to high school dances—a flair that has surmounted in a veritable mobile Gem Sweater Museum. The online gallery of her museum gained such a following that Hall was forced to look for funds to pay off the exploding bandwidth bill. As she explains in the song, “Gem Sweater”: “I had two choices, you understand: I could start making babies or wear gold pants/I took the path that very few survive/Now my momma's bakin' drama and talkin' jive."
Hall began to record her own raps while at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and took the act on the road—with the help of that gold onesie, custom made by Leslie’s mother. "This is my Britney Spears-inspired circus outfit," Hall says. She insists that she is really just another rising pop star: "I think Britney, Rihanna, Beyonce, we're all doing the same thing . . . Make a couple of albums and do a couple of dances and you make money, honey.” Her online presence and nationwide tour has won the hearts and minds of individuals as well as the media: that poof of dishwasher blond hair with kinky extensions and oversized glasses has earned her a spot on Paper magazine’s coveted Beautiful People list.
Such beauty doesn’t just suddenly manifest. Five hours earlier, an unrecognizable quartet of gals is hard at work, setting the stage at Walter’s. It’s not until they start singing to test the mics that it becomes clear that it’s the actual band, pre-lamé glory. Hall has got her hair down and sports a casual tour hoodie, green leg warmers and old Nike dunks. Backup girls Sassy Cassie and K To the Double L hit an alarming off-note as they rehearse “Tight Pants.”
“Okay. Now that was something special,” she chuckles. As they wrap up the sound check, the large-and-in-charge drummer, OBESE E offers the opening act to borrow her drums, evincing that despite fame, the group hasn’t lost its sweet Midwest charm.
“When I go back home to Iowa, it’s just me and my cat, Turtle. And the LY’s keep me grounded,” Hall explains.
With the aid of the DIY music software Garageband, Hall has produced three albums. The latest is titled "CeWEBrity," a citation of her online aura. She describes herself as riding a wave of country-folk inspired raps, but aims to embark on a variety of Madonna-style transformations. When asked what’s next, she replies that she wants to take things a little retro.
“Wagon wheels. Wagon wheels all over the dance floor,” Hall says, as she predicts her future Oregon Trail Chic aesthetic.
The Mother Gem’s nationwide tour has attracted a cult following, and during Friday’s performance, the lucky ones are selected for a "sweater christening," in which Hall pulls audience members onto the stage and carefully inspects their attire. Even still, Hall’s own glam pop-and-lock across Walter’s retains center stage.
"The Spice Girls use rotating, lifting stage risers. We used a lazy Susan and some of my dad's garage door parts and built our own little turntable.”
This setup includes a painter’s scaffolding and a mountain climbing harness, which Hall mounts to appear as though she’s levitating over the audience.
“It's like a low-budget Cirque de Soleil while we're singing songs about enjoying snacks and watching television," Hall says.
The thin line between art and irony, straddled by golden lamé thunder thighs, has never looked this good.