Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic takes audience on a wild ride at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton
I know James Brown is the original “Hardest Working Man In Show Business,” but “Weird Al” Yankovic’s show at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton last Sunday night convinced me that the accordion-playing, loud-shirt-wearing Renaissance man deserves that title, too.
His two-hour-plus concert was a seamless multimedia mixtape of songs, video clips, comedy and countless costume changes — not just for him, but for his entire band.
Yankovic has been the world’s premiere parodist for over 30 years (an amazing feat in itself, successfully keeping his finger on pop culture’s pulse even at age 50-something) and the same attention to detail that makes his parodies so successful infused his entire show.
It was a high-energy cavalcade of medleys and outfits and choreography with zero down time for the crowd or the performers. Yankovic and his longtime band put so much sweat and spectacle into the quick-moving show, it must take rehearsals of Michael Jackson proportions to be that tight of a unit, doing that much of a workout.
Yankovic’s love of video has been there from the beginning and the night’s songs were usually accompanied by creative animation (like his White Stripes parody about the larger-than-life legend of Charles Nelson Reilly, “CNR”), or the original videos he made back in the day.
Sometimes they’d have the effect of “turning 3-D” as Weird Al would come out from under the screen to perform the song, wearing the same buckle-covered fat suit from the “Fat” video playing above him, or the Amish dress from “Amish Paradise.”
For “White & Nerdy,” Yankovic zoomed out on a Segway wearing a do-rag, flitting expertly among the amplifiers and cables and microphones, and the mind reeled at his many talents — limber high kicks and elastic dancing (somehow able to shake his arms and make them look as if they have no bones in them), holding his accordion triumphantly to the rafters with only one hand (those things are heavy), remembering every last clever lyric without use of a teleprompter or backing track. He’s a total and tireless entertainer.
The visual kick of the show was helped by a serious light show and lots of costumes: For nearly every song, everyone would reemerge on stage wearing totally different outfits. For “Smells Like Nirvana,” they wore grunge wigs or flannel; for the “Star Wars” rock-block encore of “The Saga Begins” and “Yoda,” they sported Tatooine tunics.
Drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, guitarist Jim West and bassist Steve Jay have all been with Yankovic since the beginning (1980-82), keyboardist Ruben Valtierra joined up in 1991, and it’s obvious why Yankovic has wanted them on his team for decades. They were a well-oiled machine, with him every step of the way, no matter what the marathon show called for.
To give Yankovic and his bandmates time to run off stage and change, many songs were bookended by videos that highlighted Weird Al’s huge part in pop culture, with Al-centered clips from The Simpsons, Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Jeopardy and many more.
He continued his “AL TV” tradition of making fake interviews with real stars, where actual responses are given a silly new life by Yankovic’s added-later questions.
On screen Yankovic chatted with Antonio Banderas, who admitted, thanks to the reframed interview, that yes, he likes to pass gas in social situations. Nicolas Cage responded favorably to Weird Al’s tempting question, “How about a Twinkie wiener sandwich?”
Video highlights included an avalanche of blink-and-you’ll-be-befuddled “5-Second Films” featuring Weird Al and “Weird Owl;” a nearly as short clip of Yankovic in a grocery store’s “15 Items or Less” checkout, replacing the word “less” with “fewer” and shaking his head with annoyance; plus a star-studded coming attraction for a fake biopic about his life story entitled “Weird.”
Yankovic also writes original songs, usually in the style of a particular artist, though not a parody of a specific song. “Wanna B Ur Lovr” (à la one of Beck’s seedy jams) gave Yankovic an excuse to leave the stage with a wireless microphone and prowl around the crowd in a red-and-black tiger-striped suit, crooning gross-out pickup lines passionately into people’s faces, climbing on seats and hitting soul man falsetto highs. He may have even licked a fan’s face; I craned my neck to get a better look, but so did everyone else around me.
His parodies got the biggest response and the biggest spectacles, like “Canadian Idiot” (after Green Day’s “American Idiot”), for which he wore a vibrant red/white suit jacket covered in a maple leaf pattern. He swung the mic stand behind and above his head while he punkily shouted the lyrics (and incorporated the Bob & Doug McKenzie theme song into the chorus); the ceiling exploded with red-and-white streamers.
At the very end of the night, wedged in the middle of “Yoda,” Weird Al truly lived up to his name: He and the band did a long and highly arranged a cappella breakdown of rhythmic nonsense syllables and five-part harmony with strange lights on each of their faces. It was truly freaky — and impressive.
If you’d like to suggest the name of a local musician or band for Ken Maiuri to write about in Clubland, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.