By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — An uncompromising voice of the avant-garde who has been delivering her heartfelt and terrifying music for almost four decades, singer, activist and composer Diamanda Galás returns to her former home of San Francisco for a rare concert Saturday at the Masonic.

Raised by her Greek Orthodox parents in San Diego during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Galás got her first performance experience playing jazz as well as traditional Greek and Arabic music onstage with her father. She would explore a wide variety of music, but concentrated on classical and jazz piano during her formal studies.

Though famed for her unearthly and frighteningly powerful vocals, Galás was entirely self-taught as she began to focus on her voice as an instrument, first performing as a singer in public at the age of 20. Possessing a formidable range that could have earned her a spot as featured soprano for a major opera company, she would instead push the limits of her voice and her art with a series of recordings and performances that established Galas as a true iconoclast.

Her earliest effort — a collaboration with horn player Jim French and noted Bay Area experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser on French’s  If Looks Could Kill album in 1979 — featured Galás developing a feral, chattering delivery that evoked demonic possession more than traditional vocals. Her first proper solo efforts The Litanies of Satan and Diamanda Galas in the early ’80s refined her approach to include heavy electronic processing, clattering proto-industrial rhythms and keening, ululating tones that expanded her reach beyond avant-garde audiences to more adventurous punk and metal fans.

It was during her 1980s stint living in San Francisco that Galás would compose her groundbreaking “Masque of Red Death” trilogy addressing the AIDS epidemic. The three records — The Divine Punishment, Saint of the Pit and You Must Be Certain of the Devil — and accompanying stage productions (some of which featured Galas performing onstage naked to the waist and soaked in stage blood) firmly established the singer as an important artist and social commentator. Her brother, playwright Philip-Dimitri Galás, would sadly die from the disease in 1986 prior to the trilogy’s completion.

By the time the third record was released in 1988, Galás had joined the AIDS activist group ACT UP. She was among the protesters arrested at New York City’s Saint Patrick Cathedral during a demonstration against the Catholic church’s position on AIDS education in 1989. While many of her recordings have targeted injustice and intolerance (in addition to AIDS and the Catholic church, her pieces would address the treatment of the mentally ill and the Greek genocide in Turkey that started during World War I), the ’90s found Galás exploring blues, country, soul and jazz standards while flexing her equally ferocious piano skills on albums like The Singer and the live document Malediction and Prayer.

She also released a collaborative album in 1994 with Led Zeppelin’s legendary bassist/multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, the brilliant effort The Sporting Life. A subsequent tour with longtime Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas featured the powerhouse trio ripping through their original material before closing concerts with a searing rendition of Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown.” Galás has remained busy in the decades since with a variety of art and theater projects, but most of her recorded output has been drawn from live concerts.

Earlier this year, Galás announced not only her first limited run of U.S. concert dates in years, but the release of her first two new albums in nearly a decade on her own Intravenal Sound Operations imprint: the live effort At Saint Thomas The Apostle Harlem recorded in New York City last year and All the Way, which features interpretations of songs made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Chet Baker and Thelonious Monk along some of her first studio recordings since the 1990s. Galás brings her voice-as-a-weapon delivery and virtuoso talent at the piano to the Masonic Saturday for what is sure to be an intense night of music.

Diamanda Galás
Saturday, April 8, 8 p.m. $29.50-$55
The Masonic

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