|Photo by the author|
I shouldn't have worried about Weird Al. The man has spent twenty years cultivating a reputation as a affable goofball, an absurd affectionist and a theatrical performer. Beneath all the food references, insults lobbed at acceptable targets and random whack-a-mole appearances throughout the culture, Al's just a nice guy having a good time. And his show, currently promoting his number 1 album Mandatory Fun, is just that: a god time. A surprisingly theatrical, multi-media show that promoted the new, cultivated the old, and managed to upend the expectations of what a live concert performance can be.
Hit the jump for the review.
Let me start by saying: this was an outdoor show, and it was 30 degrees (Celsius) in the shade. There was no shade. This was a sweaty crowd. An exposed arms, using the perspiration off old beers cans to cool their back hair, old socks under the broiler with garlic butter sort of crowd. We were packed in tighter than sardines at a Black Friday sale, and some kind hearted sole kept launching inflated beachballs at us. But it didn't matter how many times I got jabbed in the back by the oversized umbrella the guy behind me was using to keep himself cool, in actual fact, it worked more as a solar cell, increasing the heat like some mad scientist's death ray; I know because I was caught in particle eclipse of his well intentioned umber. It didn't matter to the young family of incredibly ginger children standing next to me that the disaffected youths up wind from us started billowing smoke like they were attempting to turn themselves into a Voltron bong. None of that mattered, because we were there to see Weird Al: the great equalizer.
Across all demographics, musical inclinations, social positions and political inclinations, he strode out onto stage, his long curly locks hanging in the stagnant, fetid air. An accordion slung around his neck, he stepped to the mic and bravely asked if we were "ready for some blues," and proceeded to polka to his heart's content. thus began what was an unexpected concert experience, at least for one who has never attended an Al show before. And I will mention that after the first twenty minutes or so, a cloud did lounge listlessly in front of the sun, bringing the temperature down to an underpants-soiling 26 degrees for the bulk of the show.
The show contained three elements that I was not expecting, took a moment to adjust to, and were fantastic innovations that really kept the audience engaged (especially in the in heat). the first was costuming. After every song, Al and the entire band would disappear off stage to undergo a thematic change related to the next song they were going to play. This ranged from yellow radiation suits for Dare to be Stupid, Amish attire (seen above) for Amish Paradise, or in Al's case, a full body fat suit for Fat. He also performed, in full view of the volcanic sun, his Lady Gaga parody I Perform This Way in a full cotton and polyester octopus suit, with plastic upside down ice cream cone helmet. And didn't complain once (though I imagine it was dry cleaned severely afterwards). In the second act, these changes continued but were lessened by the fact that the show took on a different way of performing.
Unlike other bands, that simply sing a song, then sing another, and then another few after that, Al pulled off a feat that really only he would be capable of, and managed to satisfy as much of his audience as possible. Anyone familiar with his polkas knows that they are constructed out of the isolated versus from ten or twelve current Top 40 hits. In the second act, his entire performance took on this structure, with Al and the band playing a portion of a tune before moving seamlessly into another song from their catalogue, often tenuously related in theme but rarely in composition. So, Party at the CIA merged into All About The Pentiums. In this way, he made certain that there was an excellent chance anyone's favourite song was given lip service, while also providing a greater sense of mystery and exhilaration when moving from song to song. You literally didn't know what might come next.
The third element took place during the costume changes, that were not short breaks. Al could have performed five or six more songs in the show by skipping the breaks, but the costumes added to the live experience. And rather than leave the stage undressed and empty, a screen broadcast a selection (a broad, healthy selection) of the various references made to Al from across pop culture and his own cameos over the past twenty five years - present were jokes from the Colbert Report, Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, Johnny Bravo, The Naked Gun, Tim and Eric, MTV and so on. Also included were full clips of Al TV, or that Whiplash parody he released a while ago to announce his world tour. With anyone else, this would have seemed like masturbatory self congratulations, but with Al it served as a reminder of how pervasive he's been over the course of his career, how varied and how seriously he hasn't taken things. And when it came time for the band to retake the stage, sections of his old videos would play as way of introduction. One whole sequence was devoted just to the impact of Eat It, which then summoned the band to the stage for a performance of his Michael Jackson parody food anthem, set to the more dulcet tones of Eric Clapton's slow version of Layla. This lead to a softer, slightly acoustic and jazzy take on several more of his tunes.
These three simple innovations made the show dynamic and much more of a show than simply watching a guy walk across a stage for an hour and a half. It played into Al's almost cartoon like persona, while keeping the show moving at a pace that logistically was quite measured, but seemed brisk. the videos distracted us during the lulls, and when Al was on stage, he was giving it all. His method of structuring the songs as a near continuous string showcased his range and flexibility far greater than an album's usual menagerie of influences, and made you all the more appreciative of his skill. He wasn't much on interaction though, the only unsung words in the show were a hello and a scripted good bye sequence. The task at hand was the operation of the day, and you forgive the impersonality of the performance because of the complexity of the performance. And it was bloody hot.
I was also impressed with how little Mandatory Fun ruled the day. I liked the album, more so that his last release, and was expecting the show to run heavy to the tour's namesake. Instead, the show, music and accompanying material, played more like a Best of Al, or an Al, This Is Your Career. I shutter to say, a Farewell Al tour. The album's big hits were present in some capacity, but equal attention was given to the range of his years, and the whole things ended with Yoda, infused with the greatest performance of synchronized, a capella nonsense singing I've ever witnessed. It was truly a feast for the senses, once you factored in the sizzling smells coming off the bear shoulders of the guy in front of me.