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Review: 'Weird Al' Yankovic strings out inspired, symphonic silliness at Ruth Eckerd Hall

"Weird Al" Yankovic kicked off his Strings Attached Tour at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on June 5, 2019. (JAY CRIDLIN | Times)
Published Jun. 6

History was made Wednesday night in Clearwater, as a cadre of men and women in Viking helmets and Hawaiian shirts bore witness to an event long imagined but never realized: The first officially sanctioned celebration of Weasel Stomping Day.

"Well, that was the first ever performance of that one," said "Weird Al" Yankovic after playing that cheery 2006 deep cut for a sold-out and enthralled crowd of 2,055 at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

PETA protestors, worry not: No actual weaselly necks got snapped during the festivities. But the world's preeminent pop-song parodist did have a few other surprises up his sleeve on opening night of his Strings Attached Tour, his first backed by a full symphony orchestra.

Yankovic skipped Tampa Bay on last year's Ridiculously Self-Indulgent Ill-Advised Vanity Tour, on which he played mostly fan-favorite original songs, largely eschewing the pop parodies that made him famous. But originals -- Weasel Stomping Day among them -- filled nearly half the setlist on Wednesday, giving locals aged kiddo and up their best look in years at the dweeby, demented genius of Weird Al, Actual Artist.

The beefed-up arrangements were a bonus. Led by Arnie Roth, a renowned conductor and member of Mannheim Steamroller, the collection of regional players got a few of their own moments to shine, playing a brief pops suite (Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, Superman) before the show.

But as with many pop-classical crossover collaborations, the orchestra worked best when you barely noticed them at all.

From his vast catalog, Yankovic picked a few songs that begged for –- and soared with -- orchestral accompaniment: The swelling, countrypolitan MacArthur Park parody Jurassic Park; the twisted 9-minute love epic Jackson Park Express; the screeching string salute to Coolio that is Amish Paradise. He also chose a few old favorites (Smells Like Nirvana, Dare to Be Stupid) where the orchestra was barely audible at all.

The sweet spot was somewhere in between, where Yankovic, his longtime band and the hired guns worked in total harmony. Disco-symphony effervescence worthy of Pharrell himself lifted Word Crimes and Tacky to bubbly heights, with Yankovic crawling off the stage to serenade stone-faced Ruth Eckerd Hall ushers during the last one. Don't Download This Song, a rip on charity songs like We Are the World, needed all those strings to achieve maximum saccharinity.

All that said, the orchestra was there to amplify Al's weirdness, not drown the poor man out. His lone medley of the night –- I Lost On Jeopardy (alas, no shout-out to James Holzhauer), I Love Rocky Road and Like a Surgeon –- took on a jazzy, Rat-Packy flavor. Yankovic diverted all attention from the symphony with his lusty, thrusty crowdplay on One More Minute, as did a wall of Stormtroopers and Star Wars characters on his usual sing-along closers The Saga Begins and Yoda.

Yankovic, 59, still performs with limber-limbed liveliness that sees him scampering across the stage, scooting on a Segway and high-kicking above his head. His shows have never not been fun, but the Strings Attached Tour feels like a new kind of a good time. A few ticketholders might grouse about not getting more accordion songs, a polka medley or an appearance from the Michael Jackson fat suit. But you know what the folks in Clearwater got instead?

Harvey the Wonder Hamster!

"We've been trying for over 35 years, and tonight will be the first time we've played this," Yankovic said. "I didn't feel right playing this song until we had a full symphony orchestra behind us. I just thought the song deserved that, and I wanted to give it all the gravitas it needed."

And with that, he and his band broke out the most whimsical of deep cuts, Harvey the Wonder Hamster, a 20-second blip of a ditty dating back to his Al TV days. Getting yourself an orchestra just so you can bust out an obscure theme song for your fictional furry friend? Now that's commitment to a bit.

"It was worth the wait!" a fan somewhere in the crowd yelled out when it ended. And it actually kind of was.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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