Unlike Weird Al’s ride in ‘Another One Rides The Bus’ my public transportation to the gig is relatively empty, and yet still the stench of someone’s fart drifts through the tin space. An appropriate prelude to an evening’s epic entertainment courtesy of America’s finest parody songwriter.
Limelight 1 is packed – and I admit I’m a little surprised. Al’s last album Mandatory Fun may have been a Number 1 smash in America, but the UK response only took it to 71 in the chart. Weird Al is very definitely a cult figure, and as the videoscreen displays are at pains to point out, he’s often disregarded merely as a novelty songwriter – not someone that needs to be taken seriously. But the cult attendees are out in force, vocally cheering and singing along with much of the near 2 hour set.
As opening numbers go, Weird Al’s arrival takes a lot of beating – a video screen projection of channel-hopping proportions (including cult films like Forbidden Zone and Evil Dead before segueing into the Soviet propaganda films supporting Mandatory Fun) suddenly fills with the image of Al as he performs ‘Happy’ parody ‘Tacky’ – a live camera transmitting his dancing round the streets of Belfast in front of bewildered onlookers en route to the venue. The rules of the stage are well and truly broken – the performance space knows no limits, and traditional structures are thrown to the wind.
The show is interspersed with, video collages featuring guest turns by and references to Weird Al from film and tv over the last 30 years. This is Weird Al sending up his public image, and reinforcing the coolness of ‘other’ that he embodies. Unfortunately, the set-up at Limelight 1 means that large portions of the screen are obscured by the instruments and performers – the comparatively low ceiling clearly not what the set designers had in mind.
Tracks from the chart-topping Mandatory Fun provide the backbone to the evening, lending a currency and biting satire that is firmly relevant. ‘Lame Claim to Fame’, ‘First World Problems’, ‘Party in the CIA’, and ‘Word Crimes’ are among the songs familiar from their accompanying viral videos. Older fans are well-served on this Belfast debut with a smattering of classics – ‘Dare to Be Stupid’, ‘Fat’, ‘Gump’ and ‘White and Nerdy’ are among tried and tested numbers to receive an airing. The multipicitous layering of the tracks – style parody, cutting satires, new lyrics to familiar tunes – means that barely a note won’t ring of familiarity to even the most casual of Weird Al watchers.
That older crowd bellowing out “Polka! Polka!” as Al straps on his beloved accordion are met with an ‘It’s as if you read my mind!” before being treated to the most recent polka-based medley, ‘Now That’s What I Call Polka’ – I confess I’d have liked more polka among the parody, but Al’s performances have moved on a little.
The bridges between numbers are long at times, but necessarily so – the rapid imagery and sound on the video screens echoes the halcyon days of MTV in the 80s and 90s, but it also gives Al and his band (Jon Schwartz, Jim West, Steve Jay, Ruben Valtierra) the time for their impressive costume changes. Nearly every number is accompanied by a new outfit – with the onstage performances aping the familiar visuals of Al’s music videos, complete with some spirited dancers in the wings. It’s an unbelievably physical effort which delights the audience – the ‘Fat’ suit being a particularly impressive change. As showmen go, Al doesn’t hold back.
During the second half, a string of classic Weird Al numbers are rejigged in an acoustic Unplugged homage, with ‘Eat It’ forgoing the Michael Jackson elements, and instead playing out to Eric Clapton’s MTV rendering of ‘Layla’ – a gentler pace but ingenious reworking.
The performance rounds off with a vibrant ‘Amish Paradise’, complete with beards. From there, there’s a James Brown-style tease, a pretence of leaving before a show-stopping, crowd-pleasing, double-bill of Star Wars-infused numbers, complete with Jedis, Darth Vader and a squad of Stormtroopers. From the whoops and hollers of the assembled masses, it seems probable that there are as many fans of sci-fi as there are humour here tonight, and there is vocal unison during ‘The Saga Begins’ and ‘Yoda’.
Weird Al is far more than a mere comedy footnote, he’s a cultural phenomenon. His songs pay tribute to cinema, rock gods, and studies of human characters. He touches on the momentary zeitgeist but with such astuteness that decades later his music still packs a powerful punch. It might have taken over three decades before wowing a Northern Irish crowd in person, but one hopes that it won’t be nearly so long before his return. Robert J E Simpson, GiggingNI.com