Scaled-down works for “Weird Al”
Legendary song parody artist shines in laid-back performance
By Steve Metsch
When you think of “Weird Al” Yankovic, you may think of amusing videos, wild costumes and clever, often hilarious, lyrics that are parodies of hit songs.
On Friday night, in the first of two shows at the Vic Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, His Weirdness once again proved his song writing, voice and performance skills remain at a high level.
But this time, unlike his “Mandatory Fun Tour” a few years years ago, there were no fat suits, no Canadian Mountie uniforms, no roaming the stage on a Segway. There were no funny film clips or videos between songs. He and his bandmates sat on chairs while performing a concerts that focused on his original songs, some written in the style of others, but still all his own.
The new approach- dubbed “The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” worked its magic. If you have tickets for tonight’s show, prepare to have a great time. If you are a big fan and don’t have a ticket, contact a broker. I’m glad I did.
Throughout the evening, Yankovic, 58, offered some insight to some of the songs. We could have used more. I would have loved to learn more about his song-writing process. How does he decide which direction to take on a parody? How much time does it take him? And, how does he select the songs to target? That information was lacking. But he and his bandmates were clearly having a good time, as was much of audience in the ancient sold-out theater.
After the band played the instrumental “Fun Zone,” Yankovic strolled out at 8:45 p.m. and began chatting about twine. Those who know and appreciate his deep cuts – hand raised – began cheering as they started playing “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota.”
The band sounded great on this song and throughout the show. I’ve always marveled at how good these guys are. Think about it. They have to learn how to play all the music to a wide range of songs that he parodies. And he runs the gamut from country to rap to pop to rock. And it all sounds terrific. Credit goes to drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, bassist Steve Jay, guitarist Jim “Kimo” West, and keyboardist Ruben Valtierra, the “new guy” who joined 26 years ago.
One of the best things about “Weird Al” is his habit of writing songs that are about some very strange people. Consider the character featured in the “Good Old Days,” basically a serial killer in training. Or “I Remember Larry,” a song about a longtime victim of a bully who finally evens the score. Then there’s the stalker in love with flight attendant “Airline Amy.” It’s dark stuff, and the lyrics are so damn funny, fans couldn’t help but laugh often during the show..
It’s always amazed me how Yankovic is a vocal chameleon, seemingly able to effortlessly sound like other artists. That was proven again Friday night when he nailed Jim Morrison’s voice in the Doors-like “Craigslist” and when he became David Byrne for the Talking Heads-inspired “Dog Eat Dog.” The entire band morphed into the Grateful Dead for a new take on an old favorite, “Dare to be Stupid.”
He talked of trying to save the music industry when he wrote “Don’t Download this Song,” his ode to those star-studded songs for charity like “We Are the World.” In this one, the singer begs plead to not download songs illegally, to “go and buy the CD, like you know that you should” lest the singer can’t afford another “diamond-studded swimming pool.”
It’s songs like that which keep fans listening to his CDs. Hey, the guy has been a musical force since the 1980s. He’s in elite company. Only Yankovic, the late Michael Jackon, U2 and Madonna have had Top 40 Hot 100 hit songs in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Three of them are in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. One can make a solid argument for “Weird Al” being inducted. His career has outlasted many of the artists he’s parodied, he sells millions of albums, and he’s probably helped many sell music and concert tickets of those bands he’s parodied.
But I digress.
This tour is clearly billed as being for the hard-core fans who love the deep cuts. He noted such when, while talking of his last tour, he said the next song to be played was not back then because he didn’t think casual fans were ready for a nine-minute song about a bus ride. So it’s no surprise the crowd roared when “Jackson Park Express” began.
It’s important ot note that his setlists have been wildly diverse. So if you went Friday night and have tickets tonight, you’ll hear some different songs. In other words, you may hear “Albuquerque” or “Trapped in the Drive-Thru.”
You will hear a seven-song medley featuring some of his biggest hits – no spoilers here – to close the show, played in styles quite unlike the original parodies.
And to start the encore you will hear one spot-on cover of a song. We were treated to the Ramones’ “Beat on the Brat,” which Yankovic called “a danceable song about child abuse.” Well, it is. He closes the encore with one of his finest efforts, “The Saga Begins” which tells much of the “Star Wars” story set to the music of “American Pie.” It became a huge singalong.
My only beef? The show was over at 10:22 p.m., so we had just under 100 minutes of music. With so many great songs to choose from, the band could’ve easily played for two hours.
Opening was Emo Philips, he of the odd hairstyle and strange vocal delivery. He was in Yankovic’s under-rated “UHF” movie, released in 1989. Philips was pretty funny, especially with his take on newcomer Cub fans and about his childhood, noting he was born in Chicago but his family moved to Downers Grove “and it took me until I was 12 to find them.”