Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, TN – August 7, 2015
To its much appreciated and dazzlingly attractive readership, the masthead of this website promises/ threatens, “unrepentant, long-form geekery.” That thought first came to me about a year ago as I upended my brain in desperate pursuit of a Twitter-compatible advertising tagline, unaware I’d stumbled across a possible mission statement instead. It suits the site well, I think, and makes me feel a bit more comfortable and philosophically attuned with the work I turn out here, which lives dead in the middle of the gray area separating “hobby” from “vocation”. I might just as well have written those words in preparatory advance of this review, however, for I am by far the biggest “Weird Al” Yankovic fan I know. It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn that this is not exactly a highly coveted position. Perhaps the wild-eyed, rictus grin zeal with which I’ve held tight since securing my status all those years ago has finally driven the pretenders and bystanders away. I do know a few other avid fans personally, and, if called, I shall figuratively arm wrestle them for supremacy, emerging from the ensuing fray much as Stallone did in Over the Top. My “normal” friends can be divided into two basic categories: 1) folks who positively acknowledge or even encourage my fandom (i.e. they’ll send me errant, unsolicited Al minutiae via social media, ask me occasional questions, and smile dependably/ dutifully whenever I instinctively quote lyrics or get lost in stories. Some have even accompanied me to the odd concert or two), and 2) those who either don’t understand or actively disdain it, yet keep their mouths sensibly shut. You’ll note there’s no third type of friend here described.
I’ve written before of the communal uplift I occasionally feel at concerts – whether bonding with strangers over surprise compliments of obscure t-shirts, shouting along to a favorite song and making accidental eye contact from across the room with someone else doing the exact same thing, or watching people pick up the fallen from a mosh pit and hugging afterward. “Where words fail,” the author Hans Christian Andersen once proclaimed, “music speaks.” I’ll certainly never forget a crowd of near one thousand concertgoers (and me) singing in spontaneous unison the Iron Maiden classic “Run to the Hills” at top volume even though the band itself wasn’t even in the country, let alone the city limits. A rare enough occurrence, and somewhat convoluted to achieve, examples like these remain perhaps the purest form of large-scale connection an introvert like me can plausibly hope for. I feel I’ve taken away at least something positive from practically every one of the hundreds of shows I’ve seen in the past 20+ years. Some nights are appreciably more special than others. A dozen times seeing “Weird Al” Yankovic in concert now have sparked for me at least that many brief though genial conversations between fans meeting for the first time. Even as larger geek culture, which counts him among its patron saints, is ascendant, there’s still something of a barrier separating “Close personal friends of Al” from the general public. Part of it is the bubbling passion with which so many fans embrace that identity, which I suppose can be offputting or even embarrassing to the inveterately proper. I think another part springs from a canny consumer relations move on Yankovic’s part, which is, seemingly, to price tickets at a level that is simultaneously negotiable yet still prohibitively high enough to keep out the insufficiently committed or merely curious.
At a “Weird Al” show, after all, you’re dealing with attendees that run the age gamut from seven to seventy, dressed in Hawaiian shirts, or bowling shirts, or Hawaiian bowling shirts, trucker hats and cowboy hats and tin foil hats. With the release of Yankovic’s stellar fourteenth album, Mandatory Fun, and the video for its delirious, Pharrell Williams-tweaking lead single, “Tacky”, fans now arrive to shows duly inspired, wearing some of the most mismatched and clashing ensembles humanly possible, unburdened by self-conscience and clearly given over to the spirit of the occasion. That such pockets of sartorial splendor might comfortably exist amid a sea of comparatively conservative jean and t-shirt adherents shines light on one of perhaps the only two subtle points to be made about a “Weird Al” show: This is a safe space. The front door of the theater is, for all intents and purposes, the front door of a clubhouse, and, once inside, you have free reign to be as normal, or absolutely not, as you want to be, secure in the knowledge that your fellow members will interpret most any “look at me” behavior, short of interrupting the concert or disrespecting your neighbors, as the show of affection it’s intended to be. Everybody is on the same team, even the ones who seem a touch uncomfortable, united by a love of the goofy and irreverent, which is crystallized in that ridiculously stern-looking figure on the video screen over the stage, striking an uncomfortable-looking Guevara meets Castro revolutionary pose – hands on hips, eyes to the horizon – while an impressive military processional marches below him in perfect lockstep. What’s the second point then? That there is nothing quite like a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert, with its rapid fire multi-media interstitials and regular costume changes, its medleys and singalongs and cheerful deviations from form. This is a show in every meaning of the word. Even non-fans are likely to be entertained.
The summer of 2015 brought with it a robust concert season that, while not quite unprecedented, was still busy to a degree I hadn’t experienced in years. You may have already read of some of its higher profile events on this site, and only recently did I scrap as time prohibitive the idea to do a quick-hit “Miscellanity” recap of the many stragglers* for whom I wasn’t able to offer a full review. 2015 would’ve been a banner summer if for no other reason than I got to see “Weird Al” perform twice, first in the sleepy little burg of Newark, Ohio, in a theater right across the street from city hall, and second as the lead-in to an extra-long weekend of birthday festivities in my beloved, ancestral home-adjacent town of Knoxville, Tennessee. Knowing exactly what to expect the second time around made no difference in my levels of either anticipation or enjoyment. If anything, they were oddly heightened. To wit: I knew from Newark that Al would dramatically begin the show not onstage but on Gay Street outside the Tennessee Theatre, singing “Tacky” to us via remote trailing cameraman and interacting with surprised locals while decked out in an ensemble whose riotous color/pattern choices would not only make but redefine the concept of a “worst dressed list”. As his ace band played in absentia, Al expertly navigated the theater’s entryway and lounge, mimicking his clueless, confident strut from the “Tacky” video, mugging for the camera and never missing a sublimely absurd word. Then he entered the theater proper, sauntering up the aisle right past me, cheerfully high-fiving me as he went.
*These include The Decemberists, Clutch, Mastodon, Deicide, Spoon, Against Me!, Melvins, 311, Primus, Dinosaur, Jr., and (almost) Faith No More. And, oh, that last one was a heartbreaker.
It would be literally hours before I washed that hand. Such, I suppose, are the unreasonable depths of my fandom. First, however, I would be treated, against the law of averages, to one of the best “Weird Al” Yankovic shows I’d ever seen. Once he finally assumed the stage, Al’s band launched into the cowbell-heavy Southern Culture on the Skids style parody “Lame Claim to Fame”, a Mandatory Fun lyrical also-ran largely redeemed by its unusual rock quotient and level of accumulated twang. Then, with great ceremony and gravitas, the child accordion prodigy held aloft his ancient weapon of choice and called out to the crowd, “Are you ready…to POLKA?!” Al’s polka medleys have been a highlight of his live show for the entire fifteen-plus years I’ve been party to them – especially since he’s begun synching a sped-up pastiche of the offending music videos to the song so it appears the impossibly jaunty words are being sung by over-caffeinated versions of Miley Cyrus, One Direction, LMFAO, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Daft Punk, among others – and “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” is no exception. I don’t see how the speculation that Al’s YouTube-spurred move away from traditional album-making might necessarily halt his polka production could be true when his polkas always seem so purposeful and energizing in a live context. There was no need to test the theory this time, thankfully. Alongside garish, pinpoint accurate Lady Gaga parody “Perform This Way”, time-tested, literally gut-busting Michael Jackson parody “Fat”, and the welcome return of the set’s oldest song to be played in full, the glorious Devo style parody/geek manifesto “Dare to be Stupid”, “Now That’s What I Call Polka!” spanned eras and represented an almost unapproachable early high water mark.
The show would ebb and flow in terms of sustained excellence in its song choices thereafter, but never in the level of fun it delivered. As his pop culture ubiquity has grown, the avalanche of interstitial videos that keeps Al’s audience laughing and engaged while he and the band are backstage making one of their (approximately) twelve combined costume changes has expanded further in both scope and number to keep up. Though callbacks to Al’s early appearances in The Naked Gun, The Simpsons, and The Brak Show remain, they’ve been augmented by other, more recent diversions, such as cameos in episodes of How I Met Your Mother (as himself), Famous Rap Battles of History (as Sir Isaac Newton), in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (as himself on a talk show), in the bombastic “Funny or Die” faux-rockumentary trailer Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (as his manager), or that time he provided a tongue-twisting lyrical makeover to the instrumental end credit theme of NBC’s 30 Rock. Gone are the days when UHF’s Michael Richards extolled, with booming audience assistance, the good fortune of a random kid’s show moppet to be able to “drink from the firehose!”, and the Al TV “interview” segments, where Yankovic supplies ridiculous questions to equally inane, though otherwise unconnected, celebrity press junket responses, have gone from a predominant staple of live shows down to a scant few minutes of visiting with Eminem and Celine Dion alone. Call it necessary evolution. The interstitials were, as always, wonderfully curated, briskly paced and presented, and now so thoroughly represent the full spectrum of Yankovickian reference and performance across an impressive array of venues and mediums that they can’t help, by their lubricating existence, but crank up the show’s overall entertainment factor that much more.
Because the fun never really flags at a “Weird Al” Yankovic show. The smiles don’t dim until well after the lights come up. The man is not only a comic wordsmith and underrated musician but a consummate entertainer in an almost Broadway definition of the word. He works his ass off up there and never lets up, high-kicking, dancing spastically, and brandishing his accordion like Yngwie Malmsteen might’ve his favorite electric axe. Two deftly constructed song medleys bound together the flashier, heavier-hitting first and final thirds of the show. The first medley featured ten songs (including eight post-millennium offerings, one of my personal favorites ever [RHCP parody “Bedrock Anthem”] and, in “Another One Rides the Bus”, a single dating back to Al’s eponymous 1983 debut) and was played (relatively) straight. The second medley featured four songs, played seated in the relaxed manner of an MTV Unplugged performance, including a beguiling arrangement of his alpha-hit “Eat It” in the style of Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning acoustic version of “Layla”. Yankovic has fronted the same understated, overqualified band for decades now, and they remain capable of (and game for) most anything. Over the course of a night’s revelries, Al role-plays everyone from Kurt Cobain (on “Smells Like Nirvana”) to an overheated, tiger-suited lothario (on the hysterical, slow-rolling jam “Wanna B Ur Lovr”, for which he returns to troll/mildly terrorize the female portion of the crowd with a blizzard of hack pickup lines that would get him ejected from a reality dating show) to the world’s thriftiest conspiracy theorist (on Lorde parody “Foil”) to a Segue-riding white suburban rapper (on iconic Chamillionaire parody “White & Nerdy”) to a persnickety Amish elder repping his area codeless village (on the Coolio parody “Amish Paradise”, a song in part about barn raising, which, ironically, so often brings down the house).
It was almost a relief to see him retake the stage for the same extended encore he’s played in one fashion or other since the 1999 Running with Scissors tour. For one, the show wasn’t yet over, and, dressed as a Jedi master from the Star Wars universe, backed by his scrappy, similarly attired band of rebels (plus one renegade Sith on keyboards), flanked by Darth Vader himself, by imperial stormtroopers of multiple stripes, a Tusken Raider, and a suspiciously tall Jawa, Yankovic looked the most comfortable he’d been all night. It made a strange sort of synchronous sense. Al is geek culture royalty, but he hasn’t spent the last three decades just poking fun at vapid pop songs. My first encounter with Al came as an uncertain child adrift in post-Return of the Jedi ennui. I was surprised and thrilled at the doors his twisted, literate, creative pop music could open. At the age of ten, “Yoda”, Al’s charming reconfiguration of The Kinks classic “Lola”, helped me know I wasn’t alone in the universe, even as songs like “Dare to be Stupid” encouraged me to laugh, and think, and absorb, and explore. Al’s modern era kicked into gear when he married two cultural touchstones, Star Wars and Don McLean’s “American Pie”, to create “The Saga Begins”, a piece of Phantom Menace prerelease propaganda so catchy and well-crafted that it has, like so many Al parodies, since completely eclipsed the original song in my estimation. I can’t imagine he won’t have something to say about the beginning of the third Star Wars trilogy this December. Maybe Taylor Swift will finally get her much deserved turn in the spotlight? As live encores go, “The Saga Begins” followed by “Yoda” is the very definition of comfort food. The songs are breezy, effortless fun, augmented by the ad hoc Star Wars convention taking place on stage, and, assuming the impossible happens, the words are still way easy to learn on the fly and belt out with your neighbors in one last show of solidarity. It did my heart good to see so many kids in the audience, clapping and enthusiastically singing along with their parents, and also so many young couples. I have a feeling they’ll raise their own children right.