Drama Kings

Vanity Crash brings the glitter back to Cleveland's clubs.

Vanity Crash, with Children of Illusion. Pirate's Cove, 2083-1/2 East 21 Street 9 p.m. Friday, December 19, $5, 216-664-0867
Crush with eyeliner: Vanity Crash sounds as good as - it looks.
Crush with eyeliner: Vanity Crash sounds as good as it looks.
It was when Frank Zappa died, in the winter of 1993, that Dan Folino first realized he was different.

"I was in the seventh grade, and I was totally depressed," he recalls. "I went to school and the teacher said, 'Hey, what's wrong?'"

"Frank Zappa died today," said Dan.

"And everybody in the entire class was like, 'Who's Frank Zappa? Who's Frank Zappa?' I'm like, 'Oh shit, I'm screwed. I'm never going to have any friends my age.'"

A decade later, Folino's taste for the unconventional hasn't diminished. As frontman for the Cleveland retro-glam revisionists Vanity Crash, Folino wraps himself in boas, leather, and cheetah prints, sweating out larger-than-life Revlon rock like a punk peacock. His voice suggests Freddie Mercury's tenor sprinkled with Ziggy's Stardust, a powerful, poised instrument that's commanding and seductive. Folino's bandmates (guitarists Dennis Yurich and Chris Viola, bassist Brian Hager, and a rotating cast of drummers) are just as flamboyant. Mating a push-pull rhythm section with hard-candy harmonies and a touch of blues guitar, they're one of the few local rock combos whose look is as brightly hued as its music.

If it all sounds more than a bit theatrical, it is: Vanity Crash formed on the set of Cleveland Public Theatre's production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in which Folino starred as the eponymous transsexual singer and Yurich served as its music director and performed in the backing band. After playing together in Hedwig, the two launched Vanity Crash earlier this year.

Folino's theatrical slant began with his actress/choreographer mother, who used to take young Dan along to area rehearsals every weekend. Before long, Folino was running lights and crew. Around that time, he also discovered his voice.

"Every single year, my mother watched the Tony Awards," he says with a deep sigh, between sips of coffee with Yurich and Viola at the Lakewood Caribou. Though the band has swapped designer duds for denim and ball caps this afternoon, Folino still manages to raise eyebrows with his occasionally booming voice, which resonates like gunfire. "So I'm sitting there watching the Tony Awards, and it was the year that Secret Garden came out. Mandy Patinkin was in that. He was doing a song called 'Lily's Eyes,' and I thought it was really pretty. The next day, I came home from school and I popped the tape in the VCR, and I was like 'God, I wish I could sing like that; that'd be really, really neat.' So I just started singing along to the VCR. My mom came home and thought that someone strange was in her house singing -- she didn't even know it was me. I didn't know I could sing, then all of sudden I just said, 'I want to be able to do this,' and I did. I didn't take lessons, I didn't sing in the shower. One day I tried it, and it turned out."

Folino dabbled in music and theater from that point on, playing baritone in his school's marching band and performing in the occasional play. For a couple of years after high school, he moved to California, where he installed surveillance equipment by day and drove a Zamboni by night. An avowed Bowie fan, Folino also formed a band dubbed the Ambassadors to Mars, which was loosely based on the second coming of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust alter ego.

When he returned to Cleveland a few years ago, he took a job as a janitor at Beck Center. A friend prodded him into auditioning for CPT's Hedwig, and he promptly won the role. There, Folino hit it off with Yurich, and the two recruited guitarist Chris Viola to form Vanity Crash. (Viola had made the rounds in bluesy rock band Slammin' Sally in the early '90s and had played with Yurich in the vintage rock outfit the Viola Contingent, which disbanded last year.)

With Vanity Crash, the trio sought to relive the days when there was no disconnect between a band's image and its abilities. The group takes its cue from acts like the New York Dolls, Bowie, and Kiss -- all of whom put as much effort into presentation as performance, and managed to excel at both. Of course, rock has suffered through a hair-metal hangover for the better part of a decade, with bands that put style over substance often meeting with derision.

"I think in the late '80s, when there was a lot of glam bands that didn't have the substance, everybody else felt burned, like if I look attractive and dress up, people are going to associate me with that," Viola theorizes. "So I think everybody's been real slow to go to a more flamboyant thing, because they think all the fans are going to connect the image with those bands that maybe didn't have the substance. But that wasn't always the case. With Bowie and people like that, there was musicality and image, and everything was fine."

"But then Poison came around and destroyed everything for us," Folino adds.

Vanity Crash hopes to repair the damage done by Bret Michaels and company one show at a time. Though the group isn't scheduled to begin recording its debut until next March (you can hear Folino and Yurich on CPT's Hedwig soundtrack, released in 2002 on Grid Records; www.grid-records.com), the band has quickly earned a reputation as one of the area's most electrifying live acts, with Folino working the stage like a drill sergeant in drag. Of course, in these parts, dudes in mascara don't always receive the warmest reception from the punks and workingmen who populate local rock dives.

"People judge us poorly, until we actually play something," Folino says. "The second that we walk up onstage, the room starts to clear, people start to leave."

"Or they start just staring in disbelief, like 'Scarves, feather boas -- what the fuck is wrong with these guys?" Viola adds.

The band was particularly nervous about a fall gig at Nemeth's Lounge in Painesville, a blue-collar bar populated mostly by steelworkers and Harley rats.

"We go in there with all the gear and the makeup on, and they just stare at us like 'We're going to get our asses kicked tonight, they are going to throw bottles at us, we're so dead,'" Folino recalls.

Far from it. Vanity Crash won the crowd over and was invited back. "Our set got done and they wouldn't let us leave," Folino says. "The bartender got up and did two songs. We had fun. And that's always been the bottom line."

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