Date: July 16th, 2019
Band Link: http://weirdal.com/
The list of things yet to be accomplished by “Weird Al” Yankovic is getting rather short. Last year he and his band hit the road on their “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour,” for which the comedic performer eschewed costumes, the fancy gags for which he’s famous and most of his parodies in favor of shows devoted almost exclusively to his rather extensive back catalog.
To follow that up, he’s gone in the opposite direction by having some of the country’s most revered orchestras back him up for his “Strings Attached” tour, which came to the Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, Tuesday evening.
The National Symphony Orchestra started the program off with conductor Arnold Roth leading the ensemble through a somewhat slowed-down rendition of John Williams’ “Raiders March,” followed by an enthusiastic cover of Lalo Schiffrin’s “Mission: Impossible” theme and Williams’ unforgettable “Superman” anthem from the 1978 film.
Only then did Roth turn to welcome to the thousands of concertgoers sweating away in the humidity. Roth thanked the crowd and assured them that Weird Al would be out following an upcoming orchestral break. Roth then led the NSO through a unique arrangement of the “Throne Room” and end credits from the original “Star Wars,” which earned laud plaudits.
It set the timbre for the evening and assured anyone who may have groused about a “classical” concert somehow melding with Weird Al.
When the orchestra returned, they teased the audience with the opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony before switching to a charming rendition of “Fun Zone,” Weird Al’s instrumental composition that signals his imminent appearance. Then Yankovic’s longtime band—drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, bassist Steve Jay and guitarist Jim “Kimo” West—along with two female backup singers took their places in front of the orchestra. And then the man himself ambled out, unmistakable with that still-impossibly curly hair and requisite Hawaiian shirt.
Wasting no time in letting the crowd know this would indeed be something a little different, Yankovic started off with jazzy, slimmed-down versions of “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “I Love Rocky Road” and “Like a Surgeon.” For a moment you could almost forget that there was an 80-piece orchestra behind he and his core musicians, but then you had to remind yourself that Frank Sinatra stood before ensembles of that size too often to count.
But Weird Al?
A giant screen at the back of the stage then lit up as Yankovic began his famously strange ode to roadside Americana, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” from his “UHF” album. The twine ball itself was seen on the screen as it was referenced in the Jim Croce-esque tune about a man who spends his summer vacation taking his children to the aforementioned ball of yarn.
It was a great back-catalog choice, and was followed by the anti-ballad “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” with the narrator somehow still clueless that his beloved no longer has the feels for him even after “you slammed my face down on a barbecue kill” and “if you don’t mind my asking, what’s this poisonous cobra doing in my underwear drawer?” For anyone who grew up listening to Yankovic—and who, like him, likely had trouble in love early on—love songs turned upside down like this invariably brought along a laugh back in the day (and now).
Fans of Yankovic’s bigger-concept tunes needn’t have worried as “Jurassic Park” wasn’t far behind, with the claymation video for the 1993 song playing behind the orchestra, and the parodist made his way into the audience to serenade some “lucky” attendees on “Tacky.”
He even trotted out his incredibly short composition, “Harvey the Wonder Hamster,” which features a great many instrumentalists on its recording, and which Yankovic said could not be performed “as he intended” with the NSO behind him.
And even given the nearly 100 musicians on the Wolf Trap stage, Yankovic wasn’t above reviving some of his old tricks, such as entreating drummer Schwartz to play a drum solo, which, as Al fans know all too well, lasts all of five beats or less. What was new was Yankovic broadening the gag to include the NSO’s tuba player, who, just like Schwartz, tooted out less than 10 notes in his “solo.” It’s great to see the traditionally buttoned-up nature of classical music shake itself loose when working in concert with that most famous of artists who doesn’t take himself at all seriously—so why should the orchestra?
It was great to hear even more of the lesser-performed songs, including “Weasel Stomping Day” and the bizarre bus-based love song “Jackson Park Express” from Yankovic’s most recent (and, he has said, final given the changing nature of the record biz) album, “Mandatory Fun” from 2015.
But then the Weird Al we know and love showed up, as the giant screens showed a montage of the artist’s various appearances in popular culture over the decades, from his cameo in “The Naked Gun” to voicing himself on an episode of “The Simpsons.” Then he was back onstage in a new costume for each subsequent song, including in the Devo getups he and the band have used for years on “Dare to Be Stupid.” And somehow he still gets Kurt Cobain’s aimless shuffle juuuuuust right on “Smells Like Nirvana.”
As each costume change took place backstage, the screens ran clips of Yankovic’s famous fake interviews with celebrities—tonight’s was one of Madonna continuously looking to the ceiling, with Yankovic, in “response,” asking what she was looking for—as well as references about him from every corner of pop culture, including an entire round of “Jeopardy” categories that referenced him in some way. A contestant’s response of “White & Nerdy” immediately segued into that very song, with Yankovic rolling back to center stage on—what else—a Segway.
Weird Al and the gang disappeared for one final costume change for “Amish Paradise,” at which point he “swore” he had no energy to go on and was half-carried off the stage by his roadie. Demands for his return went up through the humid air, and soon Yankovic and Co. returned in Jedi outfits, and accompanied by Stormtroopers and a costumed Darth Vader from the local “501st Legion” of imperial troops.
It was off to the races then for “The Saga Begins,” Yankovic’s parody of “American Pie” that relates the plot of “The Phantom Menace,” and ending with Al-as-Obi-Wan promising to train “this boy,” at which point he taps the evening’s Darth Vader on the shoulder.
Making one final sally into the Lucas-verse, Yankovic closed with “Yoda.” He then thanked both the audience and the members of the NSO for making it a unique evening, and then ambled off still in his Jedi attire.
How he does it is a mystery. Whether doing the “classic” show of all the costume changes and gags, breaking out only the back catalog or, now, playing with a full orchestra, Yankovic has never been content to sit on his laurels. “Strings Attached” is a grand reinvention of his persona and his tour style, and also turned on its head both a classical concert as well as what makes a Weird Al “show.”
I can’t wait to see what he does next.