I am constantly listening to music. If there’s no music playing I feel vaguely disquieted. When I started working, I would buy myself a new CD each week as a kind of consolation, and I continued that habit for a decade or so. At some point however, digital library sharing and streaming services combined with a huge CD collection stalled that enterprise. I’ve bought only a half-dozen CDs while living in the UK, in part because I don’t want to have to ship them back to NZ in due course. Musical consumption is hugely cyclical for me – as I imagine it is for most people. There’s an artist that you thrash for days, weeks, or months. Just lately, Hayseed Dixie’s Hair Down to my Grass has been on hard rotation. As John Wheeler said at a concert recently, the great thing is that when they put out a new album, it’s already someone else’s old album. They give a way of enjoying music again – and a few years ago Richard Cheese was similarly played to death in my headphones. Because I consume music cyclically, and heavily, a lot of music is tightly wired into key memories, so that a fragment of a tune takes me back almost bodily. Covers allow an enjoyment of the music and the memory at a distance.
Square in the intersection of this complex stands Weird Al Yankovic. I have an absolutely crystal-clear memory of watching Fat on TV with my best friend at the time, Dougie. I don’t remember interpreting the experience, but it’s an experience which has stuck with me beyond all proportion. Not only is Fat funny, but it’s a whimsical stab at the content of Bad. All of Yankovic’s best stuff cuts both ways – Amish Paradise, The Saga Begins, Smells like Nirvana. Like other musicians, Yankovic’s had phases in my life, but the difference is that plurality. When I was a kid, it was the stuff from Even Worse, cutting at Madonna, MJ and Queen “like a surgeon”. Running With Scissors was the soundtrack of my university education. When I was just starting to work I was thrashing Poodle Hat while trying to figure out how to disentangle myself from all kinds of trouble. You get the point.
The last couple of years have been fallow for my love of the man. In part, that’s simply that he’s kept track of modern music and I haven’t. Straight Outta Lynwood had a couple of cracking tunes, but everything was at or beyond the periphery of my musical world; I don’t think I knew any songs from Alpocalypse at all before hearing the parodies. I still haven’t picked up Mandatory Fun (and actually I never got around to Bad Hair Day), but I did watch the videos released for it. Nevertheless, I was pretty excited at the prospect of seeing him LIVE LIVE LIVE!
The Eventim Apollo is one of those semi-famous venues that has some expectations built around it. It’s not Carnegie Hall, but it’s not “Sub89” (where I saw Hayseed Dixie) either. It turns out, unfortunately, that it’s not the best venue. I bought a mid-rank seat in the circle (because by the time I learned of the show, that was what was available). The circle is set a long way back from the stalls, and raked at a shallow angle, so despite what would have been a pretty good seat number at most venues, Weird Al was very much a miniature man. The seats were also not horizontally staggered at all, so I was sitting directly behind someone. Since there’s an elevation difference, I was basically looking at the stage directly through the head of the guy in front of me. I thus watched the whole show leaning out into the aisle, being irritated by the constant stream of people going to and from the restrooms.
I’d expected some kind of warm-up act, but the stand-up comedian hired for the gig was literally the worst stand-up comic I’ve ever seen in my life. With a bit of luck, that guy isn’t on the rest of the tour, or learns anything about comedy before long. Quite a few reviews I’ve skimmed of the concert don’t mention the guy at all, which is fair – inasmuch as he had little impact on the main show, but unfair, inasmuch as I think I’d have enjoyed the evening more if we’d just sat in silence for that 20 minutes.
The show itself was a multi-media spectacle. A huge TV screen augmented the action on stage – so the chorus from “Amish Paradise” played overhead at the appropriate moments, for example. A number of special vignettes had been made for the tour, which played in off moments. It made for a show that basically never let up, so the two and a half hours was almost 100% active. Even the Foo Fighters and Hayseed Dixie needed breaks and had pauses between songs, and those guys definitely work hard for their audiences. In fact, the audio-visuals really replaced a decent portion of the show. After every song, Weird Al and the band would go backstage for a costume change appropriate to the new song, leaving the TV babysitter to pacify the audience.
In a way, this means that the concert was staged pretty much as a story-less musical. It’s a show, a performance, it’s not a chance to connect with an audience. By far the best band I’ve ever seen live is Hayseed Dixie, partly because they really played to the crowd. I got the feeling from Weird Al (and from David Byrne when I saw him) that we were a bit incidental to the exercise. Weird Al had virtually no banter, no spontaneity. It was a pretty clinically executed show. Which was just fine because the music speaks “for itself”, but it was just fine. It seemed to me like getting it into that format involved a huge amount of planning and effort that resulted in something basically less enjoyable than something a little rougher around the edges. The most peculiar aspect of that highly constructed event psychology was that almost no effort was made to theme the show around “Mandatory Fun” – surely a missed opportunity.
I had a fine time, and it represented pretty good value for money (the tickets were something like a quarter of my Foo Fighters tickets). But… I’d pay pretty much any price I could afford to see Hayseed Dixie again, and I’m not sure I’d want to pay anymore than something modest for more Weird Al live.