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Review: Weird Al Yankovic gets silly for a true all-ages show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater

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October

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During the recent hoopla over the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a thought occurred to me: We’re never going to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit live again.

The closest we’ll ever come is Weird Al Yankovic’s Smells Like Nirvana.

Released just a few months after the original version, it’s an era-specific, note-for-note reconstruction that by its very nature is designed to sound as much like the original as possible, just like all of Weird Al’s parodies. So until Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear decide to get together and perform Nirvana’s biggest anthem with an isolated Kurt Cobain vocal track, Smells Like Nirvana is it. It’s the closest thing modern music fans have to a live Nirvana song.

That Smells Like Nirvana has outlived Smells Like Teen Spirit isn’t that shocking, having seen the crowd at Weird Al’s concert Thursday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Nerdy in the extreme, and whiter than sour cream, the crowd of 1,629 spanned all age groups and transcended the boundaries of age-appropriate humor, giggling with glee at three decades’ worth of silly yet clever ditties about bologna, lasagna, Yoda and Spam.

Put it this way: I was seated between a large, fiftysomething man in a Hawaiian shirt and an 11-year-old boy.

Both sang along to the lyrics.

Wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt and accordion, Yankovic led off with his newest polka pop medley, Polka Face, which oompahfied Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Owl City and others. (You want current? Polka Face includes a snippet of the smash song Down by Jay Sean, who performed that very song on that very stage not five nights prior.)

Before delving too deeply into his catalog of parodies, Yankovic did two originals — Frank’s 2000” TV, from 1993’s Alapalooza; and Skipper Dan, from his most recent album, Alpocalypse. Both are quality pop jingles in the vein of Matthew Sweet, the Feelies or R.E.M. — especially Skipper Dan, the story of a Julliard-trained thespian who ends up working as a tour guide on a theme-park jungle cruise ride. It’s a funny story song with great harmonies that has more in common with Fountains of Wayne’s Stacy’s Mom, Blink-182’s What’s My Age Again? or Weezer’s Pork and Beans than anything else from Yankovic’s comedic catalog.

But what we all came for were the parodies. And song after song, for more than two hours, Al delivered them.

Some of Al’s newest songs are a lot better than others (give me the Jack White parody CNR over the lazy Miley Cyrus track Party in the CIA anyday), but most of the singalongs came during his big hits, from Amish Paradise (yes, he wore the full Amish getup) to Fat (yes, he wore the fat suit). The gargle-tastic Smells Like Nirvana was, I'll say it, more than a little spine-tingly. And two questions: (1) Who else could rap while zooming around the stage on a Segway, as Yankovic did during White and Nerdy, and (2) if not for that genuinely brilliant song, would you even remember who Chamillionaire is? No and no.

After most songs, Yankovic ducked backstage to change costumes while a series of clips and “Al TV” interviews played on a video screen. It slowed down the flow of the show just a little, but the clips were pretty funny (Homer Simpson was right: He who’s tired of Weird Al is tired of life), so no one minded. And midway through the set he made up for any extended breaks with a lengthy medley of hits, starting with Money For Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies and ending with the all-time classic Eat It, with riffs on the Backstreet Boys, T.I., Billy Joel, R.E.M., Bruno Mars and more in between.

A common criticism of Weird Al goes like this: “Well, I could do that.” No, you couldn’t. Sure, you could write a clever genre or song parody — may have, including award-winning stars like Flight of the Conchords and the Lonely Island — but you’d never be able to leave your ironic sensibilities on the table, like Yankovic does. It takes a certain amount of earnestness to craft PG songs that appeal to both 11-year-old boys and their parents. Yankovic may poke fun at others, and he isn’t above poking fun at himself, but he’s never cynical about it. That takes real guts.

And for a singer with limited vocal range, Yankovic at least has impressive stylistic range. What other Grammy-winning artist could go from “covering” Taylor Swift to Green Day to Coolio to the White Stripes? Yankovic’s finest moment Thursday might have been the Doors parody Craigslist, in which he ditched his normal nasal style for the moody, druggy baritone of Jim Morrison. It was outside his comfort zone, but it worked, and revealed a different side of his musical skill set.

Like Skipper Dan, Al Yankovic probably could have made a go of it as a straight artist, but he ended up here instead. He’s not bitter. And why should he be? When you can emerge for an encore dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi, surrounded by Storm Troopers, to perform an American Pie tribute to the Star Wars series (The Saga Begins) — and everyone sings with you — what reason do you have not to smile?

Weird Al Yankovic has outlived Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson, and he’s outlasted R.E.M. and the White Stripes. As long as he sticks to his guns, there’s no reason to believe the 11-year-olds in the audience won’t stick with him, too.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photos: Andrew Carlton, tbt*

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[Last modified: Saturday, October 8, 2011 2:05pm]

    

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