Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Unwigged - Recap

The horrid grammar of my last post was intentional, I promise, but without context it really fails to land. Well, I was playing off the Folksmen tune "Never Did No Wanderin'" because I was on my way a-wanderin'... It still kinda falls flat. Oh well...

I got a call this afternoon from a friend with an extra ticket to the Unwigged & Unplugged tour in Phoenix, and I had about 20 minutes before departure. So, quick shower and quicker blog post and I was off.

For the 25th anniversary of the release of the classic This Is Spinal Tap, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer put together an acoustic tour, celebrating the music of their quasi-fictional metal band in a setting that oddly enough allowed both the humor and their musicianship to quickly rise to the top.

I've only seen This Is Spinal Tap a couple times, and not in years, but I'm a huge fan of A Mighty Wind (and I own the soundtrack!), so I was thrilled that plenty of the Folksmen songs were mixed in.

Phoenix's Dodge Theater is a decent venue - nice but utterly soulless, with the vibe of a sports arena (the Colangelo touch, I suppose) and the "charm" to match Phoenix's endless suburban sprawl. I'll concede the fact that there are few options in the 5,000-seat range, but I much prefer the renovated Vaudeville (and older) theaters that draw similar acts. And it's a shame, but the Guest, McKean and Shearer show only filled about half the joint. What's with a $9.40 "ticket fee" and a $2.25 "venue fee" anyway? I think my last few years of seeing live music almost exclusively in small clubs and bars, or at most a small historic theater, have significantly altered my concert expecations to the point that a theater like the Dodge will never again feel remotely comfortable.

As for the show, it was fantastic. The three of them could gab for two hours on a stage and it'd be worth going.

What I love most about the trio's songs is how subtely the humor laces itself into the music. Whether it's Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" or the Folksmen doing "Old Joe's Place," the humor comes from just how closely the parodies hew to the conventions of their genres. The fascination with druidic rituals is primally metal, but also a skewed take on metal. Similarly, the praise for such a rustic everyday place as "Old Joe's Place" is pure folk, but dig down into the details and there's something that just doesn't add up quite right. And that's where they draw all the humor. It's something you have know to look for, and something you have to actually understand when you find it, but Guest, McKean and Shearer excell at humor via the poking and prodding of a careful satire or parody.

And they can flat out play. With Shearer on bass (alternating electric and stand-up throughout the night), McKean on guitar and piano/keyboard and Guest on guitar, including occasional leads, and mandolin, they're a real band in every sense. And they obviously understand singing harmony together.

The show definitely heated up toward the end. I was surprised to hear "Big Bottom" and "Old Joe's Place" back-to-back even before the end of the set. McKean's wife Annette O'Toole came out to sing a couple numbers, including the Oscar-nominated "A Kiss At The End Of The Rainbow" (memorably performed in-character by Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara at the show) which they co-wrote.

The show wrapped up with "Sex Farm," which Shearer joked was ruled unacceptable by NBC network honchos when they wanted to play it on SNL in 1984, again declared unacceptable by NBC honchos for a pre-tour Tonight Show appearance, and even declared unacceptable for an NPR guest spot this year. So, Shearer said, "There's a river of filth coming your way," and McKean quickly followed "Please accept it."

Also notable: the calypso-tinged "Loco Man," "Bitch School" and "Hell Hole" - both stripped of their metal aggression but not their humor - a bluegrass cover of the Stones "Start Me Up," and the encore of "Gimme Some Money" and "A Mighty Wind," an anthem that's pretty much good enough in its own right to rise above the parody realm.

I remember hearing the Unwigged tour announcement... and didn't think I'd end up going. But damn, I'm glad I did.

The Folksmen (Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer) - Start Me Up (live Rolling Stones Cover)
Unwigged sneak preview
Spinal Tap - Saucy Jack

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