Dare To Be Weird

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

A week ago Monday, my family and I went to see “Weird Al” Yankovic at the Opera House in Lexington. It was our first time to see him. When we bought the tickets in the fall, we were warned that Al would be concentrating on the non-parody part of his oeuvre. While that was a little disappointing, we figured the opportunity to see him was too good to pass up. It wasn’t the best show evah, but we’re glad we went.

My familiarity with Al goes back to high school, when “My Bologna” got a touch of airplay in Cincinnati. The next year, Q102 played “Another One Rides the Bus” a lot, but they altered the name of the artist in an all-too-predictably-juvenile way, christening him Ivan Yankinoff.  “Bus” is quite the low-fi gig, but the immense promise shows through. I was dimly aware of “I Love Rocky Road” and “Ricky” early on in college, and in the spring of my sophomore year, Al blew the lid off with “Eat It.”  James bought In 3-D and Dare To Be Stupid, so those got play in the dorm and on WTLX. The parodies of the early 90s such as “Smells Like Nirvana,” “Bedrock Anthem,” and “Headline News” were epic, but I guess I thought things started slipping a bit around the time of “The Saga Begins.” It wasn’t until Mandatory Fun was released almost four years ago that I really gave Al renewed attention—it’s not a coincidence that Ben was then old enough to be interested himself. He bought that album and we listened to it quite a bit that summer. It’s got some great stuff on it; “Word Crimes” is my favorite.

On to the concert, though. Emo Philips was the opener. He did a 30-minute set. I laughed some and I cringed some. He certainly structures a number of jokes well. After a short break, Al and his band came out.  They played about 15 songs from across his career, with Al occasionally interjected a bit of commentary/humor. Because I don’t have experience with a lot of album cuts, many were new to me. Most of the pastiches I found thoroughly enjoyable: Don Henley (“When I Was Your Age”), Rage Against the Machine (“I’ll Sue Ya”), and especially Talking Heads (“Dog Eat Dog”) were definite highlights. The other thing that really stood out was the reinvention of some better-known pieces. After saying they would be playing the Devo-inspired “Dare To Be Stupid,” the band performed it with a completely differently arrangement. At the time I would have called it blues bar band. The morning after the show I perused set lists from other stops on the tour and saw it referenced as Grateful Dead style, which on further reflection sounds right—think of a kinda-sorta “Truckin’” version. Total genius. They closed with a medley of parodies, but performed almost none as originally conceived; the best one was doing “Eat It” to the setting of the unplugged “Layla” (come on, you know you can totally hear that in your head now).

On this tour they’ve been starting the encore with a different classic (non-Al) hit in each city. In Lexington, he came out and asked the audience for a request, allowing each of us to shout out his/her favorite. He said, “Okay, it’s pretty obvious. We’ll play what you want to hear.”  And with that, the keyboardist, followed by the guitarist, put on their best Skynyrd impersonation (we were on the other side of the house from where this was shot). A woman in the row in front of me opened the cigarette lighter app on her phone and waved it around. While I’m glad they didn’t do the whole fourteen minutes, they did play enough for Al to have the chance to shout, “How ‘bout you?” That led directly in to a rousing rendition of “Yoda.”  Fantastic ending.

I do have some quibbles, though. The acoustics were lacking—the music regularly overshadowed Al’s voice, which was also somewhat fuzzy. A little less volume would have done wonders (yeah, I’m getting to be an old grumpy man). And while it’s really cool that he’s not doing the same show every time—it looks to me that he’s picking from among forty or so songs, with little overlap from night to night—the selection of tracks at our venue reminds one that Al tends to go to some wells lots of times (but I knew that from watching his videos over the years). Three of the first five songs referenced internal or vital organs. And it wasn’t really necessary to play two songs (“Why Does This Always Happen to Me” and “Good Old Days”) that feature Al the Psychopath.

Nonetheless, well worth it. One of my colleagues is a veteran Al concert attender, and he thought it was the best one he’d seen. It really is amazing that Al’s outlasted just about everyone he’s taken on; I’m curious to see if any new material is in the offing.

Al has been an inspiration to aspiring parodists and satirists for over thirty-five years, including yours truly—I’ve got a couple of pieces I wrote in college that I no doubt will share at some point. But here’s a video from a wannabe Al, for one of the songs I heard last week. It’s a worthy homage to a master, particularly the last 20 seconds.

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