Medium Weird Trip: On the Road with the "Weird Al" Yankovic's Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour
I feel like a heavy grayish-black cloud descends over me the moment I arrive in my old home town of Chicago, Illinois and follows me until I leave. Some of that is literal: the last five or six times I’ve come home it’s been overcast and cold, chilly and grim, the weather matching my mood. Sure enough, when I returned to Chicago to see “Weird Al” Yankovic do a pair of shows at the Vic it was in the thirties, with scattered snow and the kind of wind that tears right through you. In April.
It does not help that I generally return to my hometown to visit my disabled father, who views his perfectly not-terrible nursing home in Morton Grove as a prison he is willing to devote the rest of his life to escaping and his placement there as a cruel cosmic mistake he must correct.
I understand my father’s anger and resentment, even as I sometimes find it a little overwhelming. I helped find the home that my father hates, which fills me with guilt. I want to be my father’s kindly benefactor. Instead, I fear he sees me as a jailor who keeps him imprisoned in an ungodly places that strangles a soul and a spirit yearning to breathe free.
Aging is a heavy trip, friends. So is poverty. So is loneliness. I feel that heaviness whenever I touch down in Chicago, but it goes beyond that. Chicago for me is a city of ghosts, of sadness, of gloom, of despair.
That gloom lifted instantly the moment I entered the Vic Theater for my first night of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour and was replaced by feverish excitement. I was no longer in a cold, gray city I increasingly didn’t recognize. No, I was in the promised land. I was in a geek paradise. I was where I wanted to be more than any place in the world.
The Vic is sacred to me. My first concert as a child was “Weird Al” Yankovic opening for The Monkees. My first concert as an adult was David Byrne at the Vic. The last time I was at the Vic I was performing onstage the songs “Tubthumping” and “A Horse With No Name” with They Might Be Giants with the rest of my A.V Club and Onion colleagues. I used to be somebody. Now I’m just a guy with a website.
The Vic also doubles as the Brew and View, a second-rate movie theater with terrible sound that shows cheesy movies to inebriated audiences. In my mind, that makes The Vic more sacred, not less. Movies, live music, alcohol: The Vic has life’s essentials covered.
When I walked into the Vic Dr. Demento, the elfin Godfather of the funny music world, was introducing opener Emo Phillips. I immediately felt like I’d come home. I was around my people. I was not just happy or excited: I was filled with joy. Al has that effect on people. He makes them happy. He makes them forget their troubles. He represents an escape from the drudgery of the day to day.
I desperately needed that escape Friday night. When Al and his amazing band followed the instrumental “Fun Zone” with “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota”, a nearly seven minute long story song in the Harry Chapin vein that closes the UHF soundtrack, I knew that I was in for a night that would be not just enjoyable but downright transcendent.
With mock-grandiosity, Al described “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” as a “song about America.” He’s kidding, but in my mind, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” isn't just about America: it is America. It’s about the promise of the open road. It’s about freedom. It’s about pickled wieners, tourist attractions and a bum who smells real bad and says his name is Bernie.
It is, in other words, a very silly song that is nevertheless very important to “Weird Al” Yankovic fans. It’s a song with history, a song with a legacy and a place of pride and prominence in “Weird Al” Yankovic’s kooky canon. It is, in other words, the kind of song people lose their shit over when they hear it in concert. This tour was filled with those kinds of songs, that are not just the work of a cult artist but have cults of their own.
I’m talking songs like “Albuquerque”, a free-associative Rugburns homage (don’t feel bad if you don’t know who the Rugburns are. No one else does) that runs over eleven minutes in its recorded version and whose stream-of-consciousness weirdness affords Al a rare opportunity to improvise and ad-lib.
At the Vic, I felt like I was finally experiencing a crucial element of the “Weird Al” Yankovic experience: the communal bliss of the live show.
I’ve devoted the majority of my non-Al-related music books to extolling the sometimes religious intensity of the Phish and Insane Clown Posse live experience. That’s kind of my thing. Now I get to do that for “Weird Al” Yankovic. That’s pretty sweet.
Straying far from the hits highlighted the oft-overlooked morbidity coursing through Al’s work as reflected by the many, many songs Al has written that prominently involve murder, torture and insanity. Al has wracked up a body count worthy of a sluggish gangsta rapper or a murder ballad-loving country traditionalist.
Even Al’s devoted fans, the kinds who have flocked to the current tour, occasionally seemed a little surprised by the sheer volume of pitch-black comedy and gallows humor in Al’s songs. Throughout the shows you could hear people laughing out loud.
That might not seem unusual considering that Al is one of the most successful funny musicians of all time but that kind of roaring laughter, as opposed to mild chuckles or internal amusement, requires an element of surprise. Thirty-four years on, “Eat It”, for example, no longer possesses that novelty.
You sing along to “Eat It”, of course. You’re only human. But it doesn’t make you laugh the way it might have when you were a kid. Gruesome ditties like “I Remember Larry”, “Good Old Days”, “The Night Santa Went Crazy” and “Nature Trail to Hell”, however, retain their transgressive power to both shock and amuse by virtue of their relative obscurity.
Watching Al resurrects deep, deep album cuts, including the polio-themed “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung”, a novelty ditty he wrote at seventeen rooted in a wheezing noise his accordion made and, of course, the infinite comic possibilities of iron lungs, I felt like I had, in the Weird Accordion to Al, created a study guide for a test that would only be written much later.
I have spent a solid year highlighting the depth, scope and genius of Al’s career, and the clear cut superiority of his originals over his parodies. So to see him buck tradition and the angry demands of commerce and history and do a tour where he played pretty much none of the songs fans would expect, or at least not in their original form, was incredibly validating.
When I write about a song for the Weird Accordion to Al, I’m living inside it until I finish my article. It’s very briefly my world, and then I move on to the next song or article. Writing about a song like “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White” at obsessive length the way you would a mid-period Beatles song can feel like a perverse and pointless pursuit, so to actually hear Al perform “Stuck in a Closet with Vanna White” live in 2018 was a trip.
It was like when I saw Corey Feldman perform live at the end of Corey Feldman Month and was overjoyed to be around people who shared my strange obsession, only better, because Al's music is great, as opposed to terrible.
There are some Al songs you need to experience live to appreciate. On album, for example, “Velvet Elvis” is a song I respect more than I love. On a conceptual level, it’s inspired to undercut the dour intensity and self-seriousness of Sting with the All-American vulgarity of Elvis kitsch at its tackiest and most iconic and, like pretty much all of Al’s pastiches, the song nails the sonic trademarks of its inspiration but I found the song a little joke-light to be a personal favorite.
Onstage, however, the song was a sonic marvel. For a few minutes, at least, Police were reborn in their greatest form, albeit in a decidedly silly new context. It’s a testament to the depth and scope of Al’s accomplishments and his archive that his ability to, say, write a Devo or Ben Folds or They Might be Giants song that sounds exactly like the best work of the artist he’s paying tribute to is considered such a secondary gift to his genius for pop parody that a lot of people don’t even know he possesses it.
I cannot say how many times people have said to me, “Huh. I didn’t even KNOW Al did non-parodies” or how hard, or how often, I’ve punched them for their unconscionable, unforgivable ignorance.
That’s a goddamn shame. In my mind, the ability to deconstruct the sound, style and sensibility of Devo or Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello and create a song they might have recorded themselves is more impressive than his ability to write song parodies people don’t feel ashamed to enjoy.
If Al’s current tour was a 1960s folk album it’d have a moody picture of him looking thoughtful on the cover and a title like The Other Side of Al.
We get to see the other side of Al this tour, and that is a goddamned delight. We get to see the musician, the songwriter, the comic craftsman, the veteran who has amassed an incredible body above and beyond the hits the general public knows him for.
At the Vic, I didn’t just hear songs I never thought I would live. I also heard songs I previously would have imagined I shouldn’t experience live “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung” or "Stuck in a Closet With Vanna White"
Phish fans come to shows with mental checklists of songs it would blow their minds to hear live. For the first time maybe in forever, a similarly dynamic was at play with Al’s shows.
“Nothing but the hits” was out and seemingly everything was in play. Actually, not quite everything. According to Bermuda, for this tour they’re drawing on a master list of fifty two songs. That’s less than than half of Al’s overall recorded output. I should know. I’m currently on my one hundredth and twenty-ninth entry in The Weird Accordion to Al.
When Insane Clown Posse performed The Wraith: Shangri-La at the 2017 Gathering of the Juggalos and Violent J, by his own admission, screwed up lot of the lyrics. At his seminar talk that year he said that, real talk, it’s hard as hell to remember all the lyrics of an album you put out fifteen years ago and a ninja was straight forgetting, y’all.
I accepted his explanation. You gotta cut Insane Clown Posse a lot of slack. It’s part of being a Juggalo. That said, at the Vic Al and his crack band were able to perfectly replicate songs from over the past four decades without screwing up lyrics or hitting bum notes. It’s almost as if Al and his band possess a level of professionalism and meticulousness that Insane Clown Posse does not.
The perfectionism and meticulousness that have long characterized every element of Al’s organization were still there, but married to a new intimacy, spontaneity and ease. We’re getting a tight, professional and polished show where every element of has been worked out in advance but it still feels natural, even relaxed, if not quite casual.
Spontaneity and intimacy were necessarily sacrificed for spectacle in Al’s previous tours. That was a trade-off that helped make Al a household name and the most successful comedy songwriter in American history. It paid huge dividends. Al has enjoyed unparalleled longevity and cultural resonance for a musician known primarily for timely pop parodies but he’s also paid a creative price for having an expensive, involved and dynamic world-class live show.
At the Vic, Al seemed liberated from the headaches and hassles of constant costume changes and having to painstakingly synchronize his performance with video screens and audiences expecting a steady barrage of the already familiar, both in terms of Al’s own hits and Al’s take on the instantly recognizable pop smashes of others.
It’s as if we’re getting a secret side of Al, a private side that belongs just to us. We’re getting, appropriately enough, the “weird” side of Al.
Watching Al and his band in this context felt more like watching a Loudon Wainwright III or Kinky Friedman concert than a conventional “Weird Al” Yankovic extravaganza. It’s as if we were in an alternate universe where Al was a guy who wrote funny song for a modest cult audience instead of the most successful pop parodist in American history and a household name whose life and work are inextricably intertwined in the fabric of American pop culture.
This tour proves conclusively that Al does not need costumes. Al does not need fancy sets. He does not need screens. He does not need hits. Al doesn’t need to be an alternate universe version of pop stars from the past four decades: he can just be Al, sitting on a stool, telling stories and singing songs that are important to him and reflect his personality and sensibility more than the songs that made him fabulously wealthy and famous.
Al’s sensibility was equally reflected in his choice of opener: Emo Phillips. At sixty two, Phillips cuts an unexpectedly professorial figure in his smart vest and suit. He’s like a human version of the Disney character Ludwig Von Drake, a daffy, cracked genius rather than the impish man-child of the 1980s.
In another context, traveling from city to city to see Emo Phillips do nearly identical material seven times in a week and a half span would probably be seen as troubling indication of mental illness. It’d be stalking, plain and simple. In this context, thankfully, it’s a professional obligation as well as a delight.
I became attuned to minor variations in Phillips’ act. For example, in Chicago, he said that Milwaukee was Native American for “of course I’ll have butter with that.” In Milwaukee, meanwhile, he said that it was Idaho whose name actually meant “of course I’ll have butter with that.”
It’s strange to me that Phillips can be so frank about religion and relationships yet is afraid to deliver the harsh, essential truth that Milwaukeeans put butter on everything.
It’s almost invariably a good thing when fans are so passionate and knowledgable that they sing along to every lyric. That’s not generally the case with stand-up comedians but after seeing Emo’s act four times in a short span of time I was mouthing the words to his act along with him.
At a certain point I started watching people’s generally baffled, then delighted response to Emo as much as Emo himself. I felt like I was a mundanely gifted time traveling visitor from both the past and the future “blessed” with the ability to be able to predict exactly what people would say and do, as long as those people were Emo Phillips and “Weird Al” Yankovic in a concert context.
But if I knew from experience that what Al teased as a 60s-era Grateful Dead song was in fact “Dare to be Stupid” played in a Grateful Dead vein, that did not diminish my enjoyment. It diminished the surprise, of course, but not the joy I felt hearing these sacredly silly songs from my distant and recent past, these songs I loved as a kid and lived inside when I was writing about them for The Weird Accordion to Al.
The first night in Milwaukee I found myself sitting next to a woman who had been to 55 previous “Weird Al” Yankovic shows. There were a lot of people like that at shows, people who mark the years and decades by births and deaths and weddings and graduations but also by “Weird Al” Yankovic concerts and albums.
This woman had seen Al over fifty times yet throughout the concert she let out audible gasps of delight and also surprise. And she was not on drugs!
No, the genius of this tour is that it gives people who’ve seen Al dozens of times over a period of decades something new yet reassuringly old.
I’m enjoying this tour so much that I hope it’s not a one-off but rather a new direction for Al, one that will afford him a little more dignity as he approaches his golden years. But part of the excitement of this particular tour comes from the sense that we might never see or hear the likes of it again.
To follow a rock and roll band is to believe that there is joy in repetition but there’s something to be said for uniqueness as well, especially when the results are as exquisite as they are here.
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