Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Too Much Fun: Friday

This is the first year they've extended Fun Fun Fun Fest to a third day, Friday. I don't know whether this was a financially successful move or not. Discounted tickets for just Friday went on sale last week. It wasn't terribly crowded except for "Weird Al" Yankovic's customarily long set, and drew a smaller, less diverse, and overall much more sedate audience than Saturday and Sunday. For a first-time FFF attendee, it was nice to have the chance to get the lay of the land with a shorter, scaled-back schedule of events. It might have been nice to see the full character of the festival recognized with dance or hip-hop artists performing on Friday, but I don't know how rappers feel about "Weird Al." I also imagine that the added evening gave the organizers to book some slightly bigger comedians and give them later sets without breaking up the flow of the music stages during the weekend.

Magnifico, Queen tribute from right here in Austin, kicked off the whole thing to a sparse but receptive crowd. Tribute bands are a funny thing: They can be technically perfect, they can dress and even look exactly like the original, use effects processors to get precisely the same sounds, and it's not fun except for hardcore fans. It's the ones that have their own personality, their own life as a band that tend to be the most fun to watch for general listeners. Magnifico have their own vibe, with a balding Freddy Mercury who subs in magnificent curly mutton chops for rock hair, a lady bass player, and a game guitarist who also does a pretty fair David Bowie impression for "Under Pressure." They're musically tight but rough enough to have some character and the singer really does have the voice... and the presence... and the three-quarter mic stand thingy.

Todd Barry was funny and soundcheck interruptions from the other side of the stage though annoying allowed you to focus right in on what Barry does best, which is get cooler and quieter when irritated rather than screaming and yelling like the weak Chris Hardwick did a little later. Hardwick was all shouting and gay and redneck jokes. Super. The Apples in Stereo are a band I got really excited about when first listening to the first song on their second album, "Seems So." Got even more into them when the second song on that record, "What's the #," played. That was pretty much my peak excitement moment for the Apples in Stereo. Although they've continued making records, and evolved after their own fashion by adding several more synthesizer players, they've never really escaped past the basic song structures of Fun Trick Noisemaker and Tone Soul Evolution. It hasn't really worked for me since that unintentionally creepy video they made with the Powerpuff Girls. Tuning in and out during their set, I couldn't help but think of the Austin band School of Liars, whose leader looks and sounds like he could be head Apple Robert Schneider's little brother. Just in the year I've been in Austin I've seen School of Liars grow and evolve more than the Apples in Stereo have since, what's that say here, 1997?

"Weird Al" Yankovic hasn't needed to vary his approach all that much since 1979. He has changed either very little or not at all, depending on how highly you value a mustache. But that he's still a significant concert draw and a genuine celebrity even after all this time speaks to how appealing a formula he has. He's a good enough musician to make parodies in a hundred different styles even as trends shift beneath him. Studying all of these popular songs so closely has taught him lyric structure back and forth -- his songs can be deeply stupid, but they almost always develop a story across the verses, set up and pay off hooks, and match the tone of the music to the subject. His band is terrific (and has been with him forever). Al can write a song like "Dare to Be Stupid" that's not a Devo parody so much as it is a tribute so dead-on that the real Devo should have performed it with him.

Past the fact that he's a great musician and an entertainer, "Weird Al" has a charisma that's all his own. The awkward, the misshapen, the socially inept flock to his banner. He's not been so much consistently popular as he comes in and out of style on waves, returning triumphantly every time pop trends get so ridiculous that they barely need parody lyrics to be laugh-out-loud funny. From "White and Nerdy" to "Fat" to "Jungle Cruise Ride," his stories keep coming back to the point of view of outsiders. Yankovic's success is a gentle reminder to a legion of fans that being uncool can be awesome.

Since nothing moves nerds quite like exhaustive details, the "Weird Al" concert experience is a video-heavy parade of costume changes and prop jokes. Even having seen the videos for "Smells Like Nirvana," "Amish Paradise," "Fat," all many times, seeing the jokes repeated on stage is largely still funny. It's the humor of recognition, not surprise, but the funniest thing about "Weird Al" is that he's recognized by millions. Live he capitalizes on that with a benignly self-serving constant stream of video clips recapping every bit of high and low pop culture that has tipped a cap to Al. He could probably stand to update a lot of this material. Multiple clips from UHF are not necessary, great as it is. We all watch that movie several times a year, right? Not just me? And it's funny how some of the big-time fake celebrity interviews don't seem so far-fetched any more. "Weird Al" is bigger than Celine Dion now, right? Jessica Simpson would totally do a movie with him! He's gotten Aaron Paul and Olivia Wilde for one of the funnier new video bits in his show, a trailer for a fake biopic called Weird.

It's pointless to criticize "Weird Al" Yankovic for being mass-audience. Or to go into too much depth about how in the YouTube era his songs have gotten a lot more topical and reactionary, and a lot less timelessly silly: "Craigslist," "I Bought on eBay." So what if it's the same bits every song, every tour, for as long as they get laughs. There's always a new generation arriving ready to love Al Yankovic, one popular musician guaranteed never to be too cool for anybody.

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