CAMBRIDGE — We’re all used to post-punk Brechtian cabaret by now (thanks, Amanda Palmer and Dresden Dolls!), but the Tiger Lillies, who played Oberon on Monday night, are another matter. This trio, formed in London in 1989, have been performing their songs and theatrical works over the course of more than 30 albums and in shows at clubs, theaters, and, in one instance, an abandoned prison. They’ve written song cycles based on “Hamlet,” “Woyzeck,” stories by Edward Gorey, and their own macabre tales, replete with pimps, prostitutes, murder, mayhem, and ghosts.
The focus of these events is singer-songwriter Martyn Jacques, who performs, outfitted in bowler derby, his face swathed in grease paint. Singing alternately in a high countertenor or a deep Tom Waits growl, he’s a combination of Mack the Knife and a Pagliacci from hell.
Which is where his characters often live or will soon be going. In more than one song Monday, a character was killed with a knife. In another, a young couple died in a suicide pact. In the most morbid song of the night, Jacques asked audience members to imagine their own deaths, as he huffed and wheezed. Many of the lyrics’ clever R-rated couplets are not repeatable in a family newspaper, but you can get the idea with lines like, “No one wants your teardrops or your withered flesh/ They only want you when you’re young and fresh.”
Yes, it was eerie, sinister, funny, and at times a bit oppressive (a lot of slow tempos). Jacques sang most songs accompanying himself on an accordion or upright piano, with Adrian Stout on bass and Theremin (and one impressive outing with saw) and Mike Pickering on drums (in one song the sound of sticks on cymbals mimicked a blade being whetted). They played waltzes, polkas, blues, a tango, a rumba. Jacques was a virtuoso at spitting rhythmic syllables and holding pitch in that uncanny upper register, at times singing quite beautifully.
The Tiger Lillies
Until the end of the show, though, he spoke only to announce the intermission, this too in a falsetto. It was something of a relief, then, after nearly two hours, to hear him during the encores joke with his bandmates and the audience. His breaking character came as a kind of relief, and a gift.