If someone in 1988 had been asked the question “which of the following things would be thriving in the year 2018: newspapers, the recording industry, the Soviet Union—or “Weird Al” Yankovic”, which seems the least likely?
Comedian and opener Emo Phillips posed the following question to the packed room of the Apollo Theatre on March 23rd to thunderous applause and laughter. The irony was not lost on the audience. Indeed, searching through the faces on what was the second night of “Weird Al’s” two night stint at the Apollo, no clear demographic seemed to be defined. Children as young as five sat next to fifty year old men and thirty two year old women alike. Similarly, a 19 year old college student thunderously hollered and screamed, despite a sore throat, as “Weird Al” finally graced the stage at 9:00 that night.
“Weird Al” Yankovic is an anomaly of pop culture. A fluke comedy single for him in 1984, bloomed into platinum album after platinum album, grammys galore, a feature length film, an illustrious voice acting career, and ubiquity as the parody king of America. Indeed, while all other 80s juggernauts have fizzled with age or struggled to maintain a footing in the minds of a new generation, “Weird Al” has only been on the rise since his burst into the mainstream 34 years ago. A lesser artist would use this unprecedented longevity to push new material down the throats of their audience or to bask in the success of their previously established hits. “Weird Al” is not one of these artists however.
Spanning 21 songs, “Weird Al’s” set at the Apollo contained 1, count it, 1, singular parody. This is no mistake. After all, Al is weird, not crazy. From the get go, “Weird Al” had gleefully announced that the tour would be a no frills occasion for die hard fans. A “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour”, if you will. As such, the concert was as much a celebration of every fans youthful penchant for Al’s brand of comedy, as it was a grand recognition of “Weird Al’s” B side songwriting craft. This is fitting, as Al’s abilities as a “proper musician” are often overlooked. In addition to being a witty and wholesome jester of pop culture, “Weird Al” is also a blisteringly funny and stylistic entertainer.
Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the first song of the evening, “Dare to be Stupid.” Originally written about, what else, acting like an idiot despite conventional wisdom, Al somehow made his song fresher and funnier 22 years later via one tweak. Rather than performing the song in its original DEVO-esque style, “Weird Al” wholly changed the tone by singing it as a Grateful Dead tribute. For fans who had heard the song thousands of times as an 80s drenched synth pop tune, the change was hilarious, while those who had never heard the song before were still treated to a musically complex and melodious comedic experience. This balance of in-joke based, yet serious musicianship continued without interruption throughout the night.
From “Dare to Be Stupid”, “Weird Al” delved into virtually unknown deeper cuts such as “Mr. Popeil” and “Nature Trail to Hell”, as well as breaking for the occasional “drum solo.” These 30 second diversions set up expectations of grand displays of skill, yet always came down to a singular hit of a cymbal or the tap of a drum head. The bit never got old. This is not to say that “Weird Al’s” band was devoid of talent. In fact, Al’s instrumental partners in crime proved to be some of the most versatile musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. It comes at no surprise then, that I would later learn that the men playing drums, bass, guitar, and piano that night were the same people that had played drums, bass, guitar, and piano with Al for decades. The result was a symbiotic musical partnership. Al would riff and improvise, and the band would seamlessly adapt with him.
One of my favorite “Weird Al” songs, “Albuquerque” proved this point without a doubt. A sprawling 12 minute epic, “Albuquerque”, details the story of a man who wins a competition to stay at “the world famous, Albuquerque Holiday Inn (where the towels are oh so fluffy)” and the various mishaps and misfortunes that occur along the way. At one famous diversion, the central character asks a doughnut shop worker if his shop has blueberry doughnuts, raspberry doughnuts, etc.. to which the clerk responds “no, were all out of X.” In the studio recording, 6 pastries are asked for and denied. In concert, 14 were. Despite these new lyrics and impromptu responses, the band still managed to complement Al’s increasing absurdity with background solos, amusing embellishments, and a steady beat throughout.
“Albuquerque” ala 14 pastries
It is a true testament to Al’s love for his audience and music that he performs, without a stutter or a hint of exhaustion, such songs. “Weird Al” is is as much invested in every part of his setlist as his fans are. No song is for artist or consumer alone. This dual sided passion energized my entire concert experience and made me feel as if I was a part of an inter-generational community. Although I may not have the excitement that pairs with the discovery of “Weird Al” that an 8 year old has, or the decades informed nostalgia of a 42 year old, I believe that I, as well as every person in the audience on March 23rd, shared an unforgettable night of the universal language… laughter.
By Bennett Rosner