“Weird Al” Yankovic Fox Theater at Foxwoods, Mashantucket, CT March 2, 2018
Story and photos by Benjamin Miner
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When I first met the woman who I would eventually marry, on a lengthy first date which went on for about a week, we spent several days in her apartment in Somerville, MA holed up against a brutal early January cold snap, with little to do beside watching movies, eating, and the other stuff you do when you’ve just met somebody who has agreed to take their clothes off with you. In my (possibly now not entirely accurate) recollection, it was during my first visit to her place that I scoped out her bookshelves, having waited for her to excuse herself to the bathroom before poring over her belongings with, to my relief, approval rather than disappointed judgment. (I know. Look, I was 22 at the time. I like to think I’m less obnoxious about that kind of thing now.) There on her shelves, next to novels by some exotic author named Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the RE:Search press book “Angry Women”, sat the complete set of Edward Gorey’s collected works, “Amphigorey”, “Amphigorey Too”, and “Amphigorey Also”. At that point I started to feel pretty optimistic about the chance that this could really go somewhere.
My now-wife is a professional musician, and after we’d compared notes about various things we liked (we shared a love of 3 Mustaphas 3; she turned me on to a group called Annaboboula, I in turn hipped her to the wonderful world of RaymondScott), I decided to take a big risk. I asked her opinion of Weird Al Yankovic. And to my relief and delight, she told me that she LOVED Weird Al. In fact, not only did she love his music, she, like, wanna-have-your-baby loved Al. I was pretty sure this girl was a keeper.
I was born in 1975, and, as a boy child growing up alongside the fledgling MTV network was, therefore, pretty much THE ideal audience for Weird Al. As a 10 year old kid in suburban Baltimore, I wasn’t aware of Dr. Demento (a pity, as I would have loved his show), but I owned and had memorized the Ronco Records compilations “Funky Favorites” and “Funnybone Favorites”, which gave me a crash course in novelty song craft. Those late-70s releases contained a solid A-list of novelty tunes, from the now-ubiquitous “Monster Mash”, to “Beep Beep”, “Leader of the Laundromat”, Chuck Berry singing “My Ding-a-Ling”, “The Witch Doctor”, all the way to “Junk Food Junkie”, the song which, to this day, makes me wary about food co-ops. Those compilations were a raucous mix of nutty songs, bad jokes, and exceedingly high production values. It never occurred to me at that age to wonder that there had been such a golden age of musical parody, and that the dorky guy with glasses and obnoxious Hawaiian shirts who turned up on the strange new music video TV channel singing about ice cream and failing miserably on a game show was, for all intents and purposes, its last bastion in broad popular culture.
One day when I was in 5th grade, my dad brought home from the library the LP “Dare to be Stupid” which I immediately copied on to a cassette tape, and committed to memory. Even at that tender age, I could discern that Al’s strongest material was the stuff that wasn’t simply a 1:1 parody of a current pop hit, but rather, the songs which mimicked, with uncanny accuracy, the essence of an artist’s writing and production style while pursuing an otherwise entirely original idea. Sometimes this skill was aimed instead more broadly at a musical genre. In all instances, the skilled musical attentiveness on display was dazzling. The B-52s got their tribute with “Mr. Popeil”, Talking Heads with “Dog Eat Dog”, The Police with “Velvet Elvis”, country music devotionals with “Good Enough For Now”, and in 2004, Frank Zappa was celebrated with the 8 minute long opus, “Genius in France”. The subtlety of musical cues and virtuosity of musicianship Yankovic employs have always gone far beyond what would have been strictly necessary in order to entertain a given decade’s crop of precocious little boys.
So, my wife and I have for years shared an un-ironic appreciation for Al’s craft which goes well beyond his knack for silly lyrics. A few years ago, we went to see his show in Northampton MA. To my delight, after the show we were able to “meet” Al (meaning, wait in the rain for half an hour and walk up to the door of the tour bus); he graciously signed my vinyl copy of the UHF soundtrack “To my close, personal friend Benjamin”. To me, though, the show felt less like a concert and more like a Vegas show. While the band was impeccable, the emphasis was all on Weird-Al-As-Ringleader. They’d play a song or two, then Al would go backstage to change into a costume, themed to whichever song was up next, and a silly video would play during the few minutes of downtime. It was a big production, and professionally executed to be sure. But it didn’t have a lot to do with that thing that made me a fan, and kept me a fan long past the point where I was supposed to have outgrown it.
So. When we heard that Weird Al was doing a stripped-down tour, with his core band, playing only the “inside baseball” deep cuts from his albums, we knew this was not to be missed. Without going into a tiresome harangue about the business model of concert ticket sales… we ultimately had little other choice than to buy tickets at the Foxwoods Casino, located in the town of Forsaken Prospects, Connecticut. Like any good liberal socialist, I find the very idea of such places repellant. But ticket prices and availability being what they are these days, it was the only relatively practical option open to us. If not for the somewhat unique nature of this particular tour, we would surely have passed. But this tour was for *us*, the true faithful, and so I swallowed hard against the cries of protest from my Howard Zinn-schooled distaste for the crassness of a culture in which the best way native peoples have found to carve out a foothold for themselves in the aftermath of hundreds of years of capitalist genocide is to erect glowing monuments to reckless, adolescent indulgence and collect the greenbacks as white men and women gorge themselves on it, and ordered two tickets. Up to this point, I had never gone near a casino of any description; predictably, the Foxwoods complex is an enormous mall/theme park dedicated to faux native-Americana and pointless consumption. And gambling, of course.
I was slightly taken aback to see that some of the more popular gambling devices are Simpsons-themed. These are 8′ tall consoles with people settled into them for the evening. There’s a terrific, terrible inevitability to the irony that a television show which became an institution for holding a mirror to our culture and skewering our passivity in the face of *all that is represented by exactly this thing I was standing inside of* is now being used as bait to separate more consumers from their ill-afforded disposable income. There is piped-in Native American flute and other Native American-themed New Age music in the main thoroughfares. The general din of spotless, expensively-wrought tackiness ramps up my fight or flight response. Oh, and there’s a good bit more cigarette smoke in the atmosphere than I’ve encountered in a public space since the 1980s. The freedom to wander about, flaunting one’s own self-destructive tendencies is apparently a significant draw, as ladies on the doorstep of a certain age lurch tipsily past, Virginia Slims clutched in the same hand that holds aloft a bottle of Bud Light Lime.
We gravitated toward the faux-Exotic Orient wing of the various simulacra on offer, as it seemed (mistakenly, as we would soon discover) to offer some relatively healthy, affordable options for a quick bite before the show. It became instantly apparent that the bowl of pho we settled on was a bad decision, established first by the plastic, snap on lid emblazoned with the word “MICROWAVEABLE”, and a moment later by the semi-vulcanized ball shaped meat-products within. The Exotic Far East food court area announced itself with an Epcot-style Shinto gate and vacant, game show-like karaoke performance platform. A woman wearing the most extreme fetish shoes I’ve ever seen walked by, enraptured. Now feeling thoroughly morally compromised, we made our way to the “Fox Theater”, which is in the “Theater District” of the casino, a sort of indoor Potemkin Village of 3 story, early 20th century building facades, painstakingly erected in an effort to put you in mind of being someplace better. Our society being what it is, visitors to the theater must walk through a metal detector before entering the theater, which is a bit depressing, until one considers how much *more* depressing it would be to become a footnote to the latest random gun violence headline. . . Despite my distaste for practically everything about the venue, it must be said that the Fox Theater itself is remarkably tasteful. Seats are luxuriantly upholstered in Royal Purple, visibility is good everywhere, even the sound baffles are nicely decorated to create a unity of decor. And the sound system turned out to be top-notch.
Warming up the crowd for Yankovic is the legendary-to-fans-of-Al comedian Emo Philips. Emo is not a man for all comers, and his deliberately discomfort-provoking material is sure to alienate everybody in the room at some point or another, but I have a soft spot for anybody who specializes in skewering religion. Sometimes gently (“Speech is what separates us from the animals. Amplified speech is what separates us from the Amish.”), other times less so (“I have a Mormon friend who won’t drink coffee – they’re not allowed, you see – and I told him ‘but coffee has all kinds of health benefits’. He asked me ‘Like what?’ ‘Well, it keeps you from being a Mormon, for one.’ “) It was a peculiar opening act, but I appreciated that Al is thereby hitting a bunch of young kids upside the head with what may be their first significant dose of cutting social criticism delivered live in person. During the “make them wait so that they all buy another overpriced beer or disgusting Mai Tai in a plastic cup” break, an upcoming performance by – who else? – Tom Jones was advertised.
The crowd that assembles for a Weird Al concert is certainly a broader cross section of society than it would have been 30 years ago. 8- to 12-year-olds being chaperoned by parents are still a mainstay, but one gets the sense that, unlike in my youth, these parents aren’t engaged in some chore, humoring their child for an evening while they imagine how much they’d rather be at the Jefferson Starship show. No; as I come to terms with the inescapable fact that, despite not being a parent myself, I nevertheless qualify for the definition of “middle-aged”, I realize that the parents in the room are my age or younger, and that the kids in the room probably didn’t come to a love of musical parody on their own. Rather, these parents have cultivated a love of Weird Al in their children. I am given pause, wondering as I often do what happens when a third generation is being raised by a second generation of people steeped in the nostalgia for the popular culture of their parents’ generation. Do today’s kids one day take their children to see a holographic Weird Al performance, Blade Runner 2049 style? Weird Al is pretty much the Alpha and the Omega of musical parody at this point, and it’s hard to imagine who will come along to fill his shoes, particularly when our tendency is to look forever backward to our youth rather than outward at our present for inspiration. But I digress.
At long last, Al and his band hit the stage. They led off the set with “One More Minute”, Al’s ode to 50s doo-wop music, and a song close to my heart, as it was part of that album my dad had brought home for me all those decades ago. This is by no means one of the more challenging songs the band will play, but the sure-footedness of the performance is a solid indicator of what is in store for us. The set covers an impressive range of genres. Al’s band, consisting of bass player Steve Jay, guitarist Jim West, and drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, have been playing together since 1982; keyboardist Ruben Valtierra came on board in 1991. The live virtuosity of this group has been earned over decades, and as they moved effortlessly from folk to boogie-woogie to country to heavy metal and beyond, I marvelled afresh at the band’s proficiency, and at Yankovic’s sheer power as a singer.
A delightful standout of the set for me was hearing “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota”, a sprawling story song about a wholesome American family’s odyssey to vacation at a roadside tourist attraction, delivered with all the earnest conviction of Glenn Campbell or Willie Nelson in their most reverential mood. Also delightful was hearing “Dare to be Stupid”, Al’s 1984 tribute to DEVO, reimagined with devastating musical accuracy as a deep cut by the Grateful Dead. The whirlwind of genre continued through zydeco with “My Baby’s in Love with Eddie Vedder”, culminating with a marathon medley where the band play the familiar song-specific parodies, hitting each for a chorus or so before shifting to the next in rapid succession. Not content to simply play the hits one after another, the musical styles were scrambled up for our delectation as well. Here was “Eat It” delivered as confessional torch song, “Smells Like Nirvana” as Cuban salsa, and the whole run was capped off with “Like a Surgeon” delivered with all the bombast of Whitney Houston or Celine Dion scaling the octaves at a Superbowl halftime show. Yankovic’s voice was a clear, focused, powerful instrument at every turn.
From the YouTube channel of Jason Aiello:
For an encore, the biggest surprise of the evening. After a few minutes’ thunderous approval, Al came back to the stage (with a hearty “well isn’t THIS a surprise?”), the band settled in, and with the assurance that they knew they couldn’t go before playing *this* one, lit into the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There”. I braced for a smart alecky lyric as we approached the refrain, but none came. Here were Al and his band demonstrating – if anybody needed proof by this point – that they could play the hell out of a straightforward rock and roll tune. Like the consummate showman he is, Yankovic finished the evening with a singalong. Personally, I’m a Star Wars prequel refusenik, but I had to hand it to Al; he knew his audience. When he launched into “The Saga Begins”, the story of the rightly-derided Phantom Menace sung to the tune of “American Pie”, he had the whole room joining in with him. It wasn’t what I would have asked for as a closer, but Al knows better than I do. The crowd was HIS.
One beefy bro a few rows down from us had spent the whole show thrusting his fists into the air with such fervor, I became concerned he might tear a rotator cuff or something. I’ve been to rock shows where the audience wasn’t half as enthusiastic. And so, all that was left to us was to return to the smoky, gleaming casino floor, down past the Potemkin Village and glowing Native American statuary to return to our car and make a hasty retreat from this monument to bad judgment. But not without first visiting the opulent restrooms, which I have to say were THE nicest public amenities I have ever enjoyed. (The stall doors are solid wood, frame and panel, and go to the ceiling. The partitions come down to the floor, enclosing the space for maximum privacy. It was nice.) While I waited for my wife to emerge, I read the breathless benediction to mindlessly reckless abandon which beckons the avid oblivion-seeker onward to the “nightclub” area: “The Best Night Ever isn’t something you can plan for. In fact, you’ll never see it coming.
And for every DANCE-OFF, mic-drop, spur-of-the-moment-selfie, FLASH MOB, shopping adventure and IMPULSE TATTOO, there’s another plot twist that has yet to take the stage. ONLY AT FOXWOODS.” Swallowing hard against the little bit of throw-up which was now threatening to take the stage (thereby no doubt making for a delightful plot twist around somebody’s water cooler on Monday morning), we briskly made our retreat past the roaming hordes eagerly seeking out their next fleecing, and made our way to the safe haven of a very quiet and safely distant Sheraton hotel (scored via Hotwire for $71). The house always wins, certainly, but we felt as though we played the system about as well as a pair of noobs possibly could have.
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