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Red-Hot Mamas

The bouncer warned us it was crowded in there. Eight bucks to get in, he said. But when we had a quick peek behind the red velvet curtain leading to Tangier restaurant’s backroom lounge, it was the heat that hit us first — a wave of warmth emanating from the hundred-some people packed in to hear Zooey Deschanel and Samantha Shelton’s 1940s-style, USO-type cabaret routine, Pretty Babies. For an hour now, they’d been belting out a rousing repertoire of standards and some rarer popular tunes with a full backup band, as the crowd — mostly young Hollywood types — jammed around reserved tables, lined the walls, sat on the floor in the aisles, even on one another’s laps. To our right, we glimpsed the pale crescent of Deschanel’s face against the microphone, illuminated by glaring stage lights and beaded with pearls of sweat, her dark hair pinned back with a red hibiscus.

Jackets Required, now in its second month, is Tangier’s Monday-night live performance series showcasing a roster of artists, and it’s the latest offering from Audrey Bernstein, the New York transplant/party promoter who had a successful run with the recently defunct — and much missed — Cachet at Les Deux. Bernstein took the stage at intermission, with her arm laid up in a sling from a tennis injury, to re-introduce the girls. In a midnight-blue dress and with luminescent skin, Deschanel formed the sultrier half of the duo while Shelton, bronzed, blond and beaming, was the bright-eyed golden girl. Together, the Pretty Babies had all the moves down, winking and sashaying, teasing the crowd and knocking ’em dead with bold solos. And the audience responded in kind. After Deschanel drove home a powerful solo turn on “I Put a Spell on You,” the room erupted. Young men stood and hollered. Three middle-aged women, who had previously been pushing us out of the way to guard their sightline to the stage, sighed and cooed in appreciation. One fell back into her seat: “That girl has got it!”

The room, dimly lit by Moroccan lanterns and filled with giant, tapestry-covered pillows on low, wooden benches, looked like an intimate cabaret somewhere on the Barbary Coast. Though it was Pretty Babies’ first night at this particular venue, they’ve played together regularly since making an impromptu debut at Roman Coppola’s Valentine’s Day party in 2002. Soon after, they began playing at the Hotel Café, Vermont and the Derby.

This being an Audrey Bernstein event, after Pretty Babies wrapped, the scene broke up into relaxed mingling that went on for hours on the outdoor patio. There was lots of leg. Many tall and handsome fellas. Older folks who appeared to be agents and managers. A wide range of distinct styles, from several eras, came into view, like an intergenerational fashion patchwork: auxiliary pretty babies in hoop skirts and floral hair adornments; a few high-’70s revival guys with leather Shaft jackets; at least one Sgt. Pepper with long sideburns and pinstriped bell-bottoms, smoking a filterless cigarette. The only one properly attired in the required jacket was Jason Schwartzman, wearing a sharp three-piece suit. Adding to the Hollywood atmosphere were the constant flashes from a photographer sent by Vogue, which is featuring Tangier’s Monday-night series in an upcoming issue, and Billy Boyd, a.k.a. Pippin in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who, we heard later, has sung guest numbers with Pretty Babies on previous occasions.

Every Pretty Babies show ends with a sing-along, and tonight it was “Side by Side,” at whose chorus they exhorted the crowd to join in. “Well, we ain’t got a barrel of money . . .” Though it’s safe to say that in this crowd, many of the people probably do.


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