“Weird Al” Yankovic | Meyer Theatre | 10 June
Over three decades ago, a nerdy kid from Janesville, Wisconsin heard a song called “Slime Creatures From Outer Space” and his life was forever changed. In that moment, his parents’ music became instantly less important. Hank Williams, The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, Buddy Holly, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, not one single song about aliens with fungus-covered hands and death-ray eyes coming to destroy civilization. This Weird Al guy gets it.
The word “weird” had become a part of my identity by this time. I had goofy-looking hair, clothes that may have been in fashion a decade ago if ever, and little interest in sports other than Bob Uecker talking out of my clock radio. I brought things like kumquats and yogurt-covered almonds in my lunch to school, and usually had my face buried in a book in my spare time. I think to other kids maybe it was an insult, but it didn’t seem so bad to me to be weird. There were plenty of other weird kids to make friends with. The only real problem was that girls were very not interested; oh well.
Fast-forward to 2018: Not much has changed, except somewhere along the way one girl eventually was interested and wound up marrying me. To her horror, this was the year it finally became clear that I was probably never going to grow up, as I secured tickets to not one, not two, but three Weird Al concerts. Normally this would be a ridiculous thing for anyone to do, but this tour wasn’t normally. Different setlists every night, comprised almost entirely of Al originals. No costumes, no videos, and no “Fat”.
Already, ten-year-old me is overwhelmed. He’s never even been to a concert. If he could conceive of such a congregation of weirdos in one place, that some day he’d be spending all kinds of time reveling in that kind of group consciousness instead of feeling totally out of place 100% of the time…well, maybe he’d have been a less awkward, moody kid; who knows. Now, imagine someone telling him, “Some day you’re going to find yourself writing for a cool music publication, and one of the editors of that publication will also be a diehard Weird Al fan. He’s going to PAY YOU to write about Weird Al FOR A WHOLE WEEK.”
Ten-year-old me would’ve been even more anxious to be done with the whole being-a-kid thing and probably even more miserable knowing he’d be older than his dad before any of this was going to happen, but perhaps somewhat comforted by the fact that his dreams would actually come true some day. (In this fantasy, we’ll leave out any mention of his favorite band at the time, The Moody Blues.)
I’m guessing if you’re reading this, you’ve already read about the exploits of Weird Al Week, Twinkie wiener sandwiches and all. But Weird Al Week wasn’t it for me, because the entire 77-date tour snaked around the U.S. and somehow, inexplicably, wrapped up in glorious, cosmopolitan Green Bay, Wisconsin. There was no way I could miss this. I could even drag along one of my weirdo childhood friends who lives there now! It was Weird Al Year for me, dammit! (Or at least, Weird Al Spring.)
Well, there were no fireworks or huge surprises at the tour finale. In fact, Al and his incredible band only played two songs they hadn’t played in Milwaukee. One was the epic “Let Me Be Your Hog”. The original studio version clocks in at sixteen seconds, and I’ll be damned if this live version didn’t stretch to at least eighteen—not including Al’s impassioned banter before it, which would at least quadruple its total running time. The other song, of course, was the encore cover, which was a different song every single night, and in Green Bay it was Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, appropriately enough I suppose. It wasn’t as delightful as “Beer Barrel Polka” or as jarringly emotional as “Breakdown” (his ridiculously perfect choices for the Milwaukee shows), but it was killer.
The Green Bay show didn’t feature my favorite Al song (“One More Minute”), nor “Jackson Park Express” (by far the highlight of the first Pabst Theater show), nor any of the beloved deep cuts from the tour that I was really hoping for. There were a few factors that set it above the Milwaukee shows, though: an especially fiery rendition of “Nature Trail To Hell”, which almost crossed the line from mock-scary to legitimately menacing, and the verrry extended versions of “Craigslist” (not only breathtakingly funny but a bona fide showcase of the band’s undeniable prowess) and “Albuquerque”. I don’t know how long it actually was; all I can say is that Al heard my plea for gooseberry donuts in Milwaukee and delivered. How did he know I was gonna be here?
The fact is that all three shows I saw were incredible. Although there was no way he could play all the songs I wanted to hear, it was almost all songs I never expected to see live. I never really cared about the costumes and videos and extraneous nonsense; that’s always been a distraction from how good the band actually is. The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour was the kind of tour I wish all of my favorite artists would do. It was a dream come true. The people I brought to these shows each night were, I knew, just humoring me; I’m pretty sure they were all a little stunned by how good the shows actually were, even knowing few if any of the songs. Or, maybe they’re humoring me to this day. The very fact that I got to share these experiences with three of my favorite people in the world made them all the sweeter.
Early on in the final night, Al sang “The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota” and I of course got all choked up. This was going to be my last time hearing this song live for a looong time, maybe ever. (Although it now seems like a no-brainer for his upcoming Strings Attached Tour.) Wikipedia designates this song a “style parody of Harry Chapin and Gordon Lightfoot”—straight from the horse’s mouth, sort of, as Al cites these two as having inspired the song in the liner notes to Al In A Box. Okay, fine; should we start referring to “I Saw Her Standing There” as a style parody of Chuck Berry? And what are Led Zeppelin’s first three albums if not style parodies of the blues? Yeah, yeah, “Ball Of Twine” does feature humor, it’s true, but calling it a style parody suggests it’s somehow a lesser composition, and personally, I think it’s a better and more original song than anything Chapin or Lightfoot ever wrote. I’m not gonna argue this for Al’s whole catalog, but this song at least deserves a place in the great American songbook. It’s a stone-cold masterpiece and no amount of laughter will convince me otherwise. That was a big part of the magic of these shows: realizing that even I had never fully given Al credit for being the great artist he is.