Concert review: Unwigged & Unplugged @ Mahaffey Theater

The evening followed a VH1 Storytellers format -- song, story, song, rinse, repeat. "Hell Hole" from This is Spinal Tap opened the show, followed by a quick anecdote relative to the second song, The Folksmen's "Wanderin'."  The trio made latecomers with seats up front feel awkward: "You just missed the first two songs! We'll play them again for you after the show is over," McKean re-assured.

I began to realize that a trio of skilled improvisational comedians could bring a new twist to the concert cliche of audience members shouting out random things. Snappy comebacks were the order of the evening - especially during the mid-set Q&A. (When asked what his next film project was, Guest said he wanted to see the Wolverine movie). Even so, I don't think anyone appreciated the obnoxious, hammered woman in the Muppets' Statler & Waldorf balcony to the left of the stage.

McKean, center stage, seemed to be the star of the show. He'd recall stories relating to either of the fake groups while Shearer made witty interjections and created a near-vaudevillian stage presence. McKean reminisced about the theatrical success of This Is Spinal Tap. "Those were the days," Shearer remarked on the film's flop-upon-release.

And the stories were interesting! Apparently, MTV censors refused the "Bitch School" video from their 1992 album Break Like the Wind for its overt sexism. My favorite recollection was a dramatic reading of NBC Standards & Practices chief Bill Clotworthy's notes about unacceptible material that needed to be edited prior to the film airing one late Saturday night in 1984. Censorship even dogged the band in 2009 as both The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and NPR's "Talk of the Nation" refused to allow a performance of "Sex Farm" on the air!

When Shearer became chief storyteller, the conversation assumed a more historical stance -- much like when his Folksmen character stalls for time in A Mighty Wind. He discussed reading about Elvis Presley's death in a New York Times article "while straining at stool" the morning before the trio performed Shearer's own Grammy-nominated parody, "All Backed Up." The only other song not from a film and the sole cover of the evening was a bluegrass rendition of The Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up," which elicited awkward laughter with a seemingly endless repetition of its final line, "you make a dead man cum."

As for musicianship, it's clear the Berklee College of Music didn't give Christopher Guest an honorary doctorate for shits and giggles. The Grammy-winning composer switched from guitar to mandolin to didgeridoo throughout the evening. McKean stuck mostly to guitar with occasional piano, and Shearer switched between electric and stand-up bass.

The bulk of the set was made up of music from This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind (The Folksmen pictured right), and I felt the trio more than adequately covered songs from both. I couldn't think of a single song from either film that wasn't either played live, or projected with visuals onto the screen behind the band, like a fan-made Lego video for "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight" (see below).

The trio also performed non-Folksmen tunes from A Mighty Wind, bringing out McKean's wife Annette O'Toole for The New Main Street Singers' "The Good Book" and Mitch & Mickey's "A Kiss At The End of a Rainbow." Sadly, both McKean and O'Toole's vocals -- considerably stronger than Eugene Levy's and Catherine O'Hara's characters' in the film -- sucked the gentleness out of the song.

Guest assumed Nigel Tufnel's accent for "Stonehenge," and the screen displayed, to loud applause, troll dolls dancing around a miniature monument lowered by string. Shearer and McKean struggled with those high harmonies, but the video accompaniment was too awesome to be affected by their minor shortcoming.

After the 'army of bassists' approach to "Big Bottom" at Live Earth in 2007 (see below), the trio reduced the Spinal Tap classic to minimalist jazz -- Shearer on stand-up bass, McKean and Guest on vocals and finger-snaps. The interpretive dancer was a nice touch, but I think the ode to chubby-chasing required a larger lady.

Seeing this music performed by these comedians in person served as a reminder of how brilliant they are -- to be able to write songs in various styles that stand completely on their own in terms of quality and improvise entire films in character around the music takes true talent. As the band plugged in via distortion pedals for "Heavy Duty" during the final encore, the awesome level certainly hit 11.

"Big Bottom" from Live Earth, Wembley Stadium, 2007


"Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," Lego video

I wasn't really sure what to expect going into Friday's concert at Mahaffey Theater featuring an un-costumed, un-amplified-to-11 Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Maybe I was thinking too hard about it? After all, when you go see a band, they play their songs.  When you go see a comedian, he does his material. With Guest, McKean, and Shearer, reality lay in between — a hilarious, two-hour multimedia jaunt down memory lane complete with stories, clips, and songs predominantly from two classic film satires about seemingly disparate genres of music.

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