Dallas — It was the summer of 2013 and I was sitting in Dream Café in Addison. A rather infectious pop song caught my ear, seemed quite familiar, so I asked the waiter what it was. He looked at me with puzzlement and pity, arched his eyebrows, tilted his head, and said: “It’s ‘Blurred Lines.’ ”
Obviously, pop music is not my thing. I didn’t know the song because “Weird Al” Yankovic had not parodied it yet. There are dozens of songs I know purely as Yankovic parodies. I’ve heard snippets of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," but listened many times to the entire “I Love Rocky Road.” My musical tastes were forged in the early ‘70s by Dr. Demento and have never recovered. I just can’t do normal. The Yankovic concert Friday at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House provided plenty of funny weird.
It’s easy to dismiss Yankovic—unless you’re paying attention. Yeah, for folks hitting 60 he’s that “Dare to Be Stupid” guy. Then you start looking into him. Sold more than 12 million albums. Four Grammy Awards and 15 nominations, four U.S. gold records and six platinum. One of a handful of musicians who can claim top chart hits for every decade of their careers. Wrote and produced a television series and a movie. Penned two children’s books. Has a line of Weird Al action figures by NECA Toys. Soon to be the co-host/bandleader on the fifth season of Comedy Bang! Bang! Not only mega talented and successful, but a mensch.
Sure, Yankovic’s a titan of music videos. But live? He sold out Radio City Music Hall within days of the concert announcement. What do these people know that low-information opinionators don’t? He puts on a stupendous show. In Dallas, a charming array of ages were on hand, from under 12 (brought by parents who were genuinely happy to be there) to old fogeys like myself who date to the ’80s era of "My Bologna" and “Dare to Be Stupid.” Hawaiian shirts, tin foil hats, red berets, crazed Vans sneakers, a woman with a Yoda doll in a baby sling—this was a joyous crowd. The Winspear is rarely so zany. Or so full. Long ago sold out, even the fourth tier was fully packed.
From the intro that was shot and broadcast live from the Winspear backstage and lobby, to the extended encore, it was a superbly constructed two-hour concert executed with 110 percent effort. No matter what phase of Yankovic’s career you were focused on, there was something for you. Classics and recent songs from Mandatory Fun—Yankovic’s first album to lodge at No. 1 on the charts—were performed in entirety. Other songs folded into extended medleys that made your head spin from all the musical styles. He unveiled yet another polkathon where recent pop hits get an oompah beat and revved to twice their speed. “Wrecking Ball” makes a dandy polka.
Few performers enmesh so fully into the collective national conscious as Yankovic. He is the king of cameos. Lengthy quick-cut video montages featured innumerable references to Yankovic by fictional sitcom characters, guest appearances on various television shows, comedians and pundits talking about him, and clips from ‘80s Yankovic’s Al TV and UHF film—perfect cover to allow for a dozen costume changes. Almost as fun was watching Yankovic’s AV guy in the booth, who must have seen the show a thousand times and still grooved along in his red beret.
“Perform This Way” (“Born This Way”) featured Yankovic in a purple octopus costume, orange flower-pot hat, and fuchsia knee boots. More than parody, it was a satirical take on Lady Gaga versus her public image. But lyrics addressed the chasm we all face between who we are and what we do for money. “Got my straight jacket today, it's made of gold lame. No, not because I'm crazy—I perform this way.”
With a skill that must have inspired Jimmy Fallon’s musical pastiches, Yankovic can pen a song in a band’s style so expertly that it shocks to learn it’s not theirs. Such as the case with the “Dare to Be Stupid,” a pitch-perfect Devo. The mindless lyrics allowed Yankovic physical humor to shine, a loose-limbed, disjointed grace that reminds of Steve Martin. “Dare to be stupid. It's all right. Dare to be stupid. We can be stupid all night.”
"Foil," a take on “Royals” by Lorde, mashes mind-control conspiracy theories and a love of cooking, bonded over their use of aluminum foil. Ah, that explained the tin hats in the audience. “But then I deal with fungal rot, bacterial formation. Microbes, enzymes, mold and oxidation.”
The ‘90s hit “White & Nerdy” far surpassed its parody subject, "Ridin'" by Chamillionaire. (The band even credits the Yankovic parody with raising their profile to Grammy level.) Yankovic enters riding a Segway and the visuals take a few fun digs at Eminem. What’s not to like? “I memorized Holy Grail really well. I can recite it right now and have you ROTFLOL.”
“Word Crimes” (“Blurred Lines”) was done live to the animated music video. Insane word-nerd fun. My life is now complete. “Better figure out the difference. Irony is not coincidence. And I thought that you'd gotten it through your skull. What's figurative and what's literal.”
Perfect merging of live show and backdrop visuals came together in “Amish Paradise” (“Gangster’s Paradise”) like a 3-D video. The song seemed to be poking fun at Luddites until toward the conclusion when a sharp point slipped in—“Think you're really righteous? Think you're pure in heart? Well, I know I'm a million times as humble as thou art”—and ended with a dig at modern scoffers—“There's no cops or traffic lights. Living in an Amish paradise. But you'd probably think it bites. Living in an Amish paradise.”
The encore, "The Saga Begins," used the melody and rhyming structure of "American Pie" for Obi-Wan Kenobi’s take on the plot of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. It’s epic. Yet a good chunk of the audience had the whole thing memorized. The band was decked out in Jedi garb, with a chorus line of Storm Troopers in shiny white gear along with a robot or two. “My, my, this here Anakin guy. May be Vader someday later. Now he's just a small fry. And he left his home and kissed his mommy goodbye. Sayin' 'Soon I'm gonna be a Jedi'."
But it’s not just Yankovic—it’s the Al Yankovic band. Most of the musicians have been with him since the early ‘80s. It’s a tight band with genuine respect and fondness for each other, making for an impeccable show and seamless shtick that’s as much visual as verbal. Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz played the drums clear and strong, but the groove belonged to bassist Steve Jay, a three-time Peabody Award winner for his ethnomusicologist work with African indigenous rhythms. Even though Jim “Kimo” West is known for being a Hawaiian slack-key guitar master, with Yankovic he was a lead-guitar rocker with oodles of power chops. Pretty much peeled back the eyeballs of the 10 year old in front of me, who’d lean back in his chair as if being blasted. Relative newcomer (early ‘90s) Rubén Valtierra on keyboards rounded it out. The stage crew and roadies were top notch as well.
Midway through the energetic musical fusillade, the band gathered in a tight group, sitting around in chairs at stage front in what was part Las Vegas, part MTV Unplugged. In an impressive display of double parody, they performed “Like A Surgeon” as a power ballad, a jazzy interpretation of “I Lost On Jeopardy,” a bluegrassy “I Love Rocky Road,” and more. Yankovic and the band evidently can do anything musical.