Wednesday, July 21, 2010


I really meant to write about this earlier, but as so often happens "life" gets in the way--work, travel, fatigue, know the drill. But with all the trouble and tempestuous distraction that circumstances throw at us, sometimes the best way to deal with it is to laugh. And few people in the past two decades have made me laugh as much as "Weird Al" Yankovic. He is the most successful parody artist ever, having sold millions of records, won multiple Grammy awards, appeared on celebrity game shows, and been a pop-culture reference in numerous venues, from the Naked Gun movies to "The Simpsons." Grunge rock pioneer group publicly stated that they knew they'd really hit it big when WAY parodied their monumental hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with "Smells Like Nirvana." He is probably (indirectly) one of the biggest-selling polka artists of all time, since most of his albums include a medley of popular tunes done in a hyperactive-yet-clearly-articulated polka style. (His Alapalooza disc eliminates the medley in favor of "Bohemian Polka," a complete polka-styled rendition of Queen's ubiquitous "Bohemian Rhapsody.") I have been a WAY fan nearly from the beginning, having seen his earliest videos ("Ricky," "I Love Rocky Road," and his "breakthrough" hit "Eat It") when they first started playing on MTV during my first grade year. During the roughly two-decade span between his first top-40 entry with "Eat It" and the top-40 appearance of his Chamillionaire knock-off "White and Nerdy" (when I saw the video, it was like looking in a mirror) WAY has matured from a goofy guy with clever rewrites of pop tunes and a few interesting originals thrown in to a bona fide creative artist whose parodies match the production quality of their predecessors and whose original material is complex and sophisticated enough that I don't think the term "genius" would be out of place.

So I was quite excited to hear that Yankovic would be making an appearance just a few miles from my residence near Watertown, NY on July 5, 2010. I'd seen him a few years before in Knoxville, TN on a last-minute invite from some college friends, but we arrived late and I wasn't going to pass up the chance to see a complete show. The "Live Al" experience is quite a production, even in Watertown's little hockey arena which has the acoustical quality of a standard high school bathroom. Al has been touring with the same band his entire career (guitarist Jim West, bass player Steve Jay, drummer Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, keyboardist Ruben Valtierra, and Al on keyboards and accordian, and some harmonica) and in between numbers, videos are shown that are compilations of Al's MTV and "Weird Al" show productions, tribute videos from other artists, pop culture clips that reference Al, and Al inserting himself into "interviews" with folks such as Celine Dion, Eminem, Robert Plant, and Jessica Simpson with hysterically funny results. (Sample dialogue: Al "So, Celine, I understand that years ago you went on a safari with your family and you were attacked by cannibals. Wanna talk about that?" Celine Dion "I remember the cooking of my mother." Al "That must have been traumatic!" Celine "It was great! I have fond memories of that time!" Al "Let's talk about something else, ok...?") During these breaks in the show Al and the band change costumes and props for the next number. They must put a tremendous amount of effort into planning their shows, because they must perform in a variety of genres, styles, and costumes and yet the whole thing seems smooth, polished, and the band doesn't miss a note. Al's voice sounds better than ever, far better than the nasal nerd-next-door delivery that marked his earliest efforts. He pulls off quite an impressive Jim Morrison impersonation on his Doors-style "Craigslist" yet manages to evoke Don McLean in his Phantom Menace-inspired "American Pie" parody "The Saga Begins." ("My, my, this here Anakin guy, may be Vader someday later now he's just a small fry...")

The concert started off with an as-yet-unreleased polka medley that my sources suggest is named "Polka Face," a conglomeration of recent hits like Lady GaGa's "Poker Face," "I Need You Now" by Lady Antebellum, Jaime Foxx's "Blame It On the Alcohol," Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl," and others. A more obscure Alapalooza track followed, the R.E.M.-ish "Frank's 2000 inch TV," and his recent "internet leak," the actor sob story/theme park ride tribute "Skipper Dan." Other recent tunes included his White Stripes-esque Charles Nelson Reilly homage "CNR" (though the sight of Bermuda dressed like Meg White was a bit disturbing), his parody of T.I.'s "Whatever You Like,""Whatever You Like," and of course "Smells Like Nirvana." A touching rendition of the unplugged "You Don't Love Me Anymore" ended with the smashing of a perfectly good (and unplayed) guitar. A couple of songs seemed tailor-made for the culture of northern New York: "Amish Paradise," which I'm sure was enjoyed by a very Menonite-looking man in the audience, and his hat tip to Green Day, "Canadian Idiot," a humorous swipe at common stereotypes of those polite people who live just 30 miles away across the border. (A nice touch was that this tune concluded with an explosion of red and white confetti.) He wandered out into the audience, prompting a lot of cellphone picture-taking, for his Al-imitating-Beck-imitating-Prince song "Wanna B Ur Luvr," a funky string of increasingly bad pick-up lines. (You're absolutely perfect, don't speak--you might spoil it; your eyes are even bluer than the water in my toilet.) A lengthy medley covered a lot of his well-known tunes, notably his first tune to catch public notice, the Queen parody "Another One Rides the Bus." His final encore, the "Lola"-inspired "Yoda," included the ever-popular "Yoda Chant," an unreleased but mind-bogglingly complex a capella mismash of arcane babbling that seemed to be as natural to the band as...well, everything else.

The big shock was when the audience was informed that we should wait out back by the bus if we wanted to meet Al. I hadn't planned on this, but I figured that I might as well wait it out and see what happened. I ended up in line next to a woman who had actually danced with Al during "Luvr," and what I think were her son and his girlfriend. Since many Al fans are nerd-ish and have common interests, we had a constant and random conversation about all things Al and the various tangents that will come up in such a dialogue. The younger girl was excited to have actually caught a fragment of the busted guitar. (I guess these people got their money's worth for the front-row tickets.) Around 11 pm fireworks came from the nearby baseball diamond. I can only assume that they were leftover from July 4th, but fireworks. At least they helped pass the time, as we waited for around an hour and a half before the line got close to the bus. One picture, one autograph, no questions, we were instructed. I was glad that in addition to a t-shirt (which was printed with tour dates before Watertown was added; it was a "Craigslist" shirt with a picture of "Al Morrison") I had purchased a $3 pack of trading cards, for now I actually had something for him to autograph. In the end, I got the autograph, a picture at the front of the tour bus, and a handshake/"great show; I've been a fan for a long time" before I headed back to the car. Between seeing the Space Shuttle and meeting "Weird Al" I can be glad that I've managed to fulfill two childhood dreams this year. It is gratifying to see one of the most well-known names in the business take time for his fans, especially since he has managed to craft a scandal-free, family-friendly product that keeps folks laughing long after the show is over. Not bad for someone who is so white and nerdy.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


I suppose it seems natural that a blog with the name "Freedom Trombone" should have an entry on July 4. So here it is.

While there will always be the cynical voices who complain about how Independence Day didn't apply to the slaves, or how the actual vote to separate from England was taken on July 2 (the final draft of the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, though), the truth is that the date itself doesn't matter as much as remembering the purpose of it. For the first time in modern history, a nation was established that was based on a concept rather than racial identity, religious isolationism, or ancestral territory. That concept was that a people should govern themselves, rather than be governed by a distant monarch whose only claim over them was that he was born to a particular family. They recognized that unchecked power inevitably leads to despotism, so they instituted a government that places a check on every facet of power: the Executive cannot write laws, the Legislature cannot enact the laws that it writes, and the Judiciary can only interpret laws that have been written and signed. Even the people themselves are not given absolute authority, for they must choose representatives, and their popular representatives are balanced by the even representation in the Senate.

More than that, when the Constitution was written the writers knew that mistakes would be made in this "grand experiment." They knew that certain events could not be foreseen. They knew that eventually something would have to be done about slavery, which most of the founders realized was antithetical to the concept of freedom upon which the nation was founded. So they wrote a document that allowed for the possibility of change, to give specificity to the broad ideas it contained. How little we appreciate that we can read our federal law in its original form, and know that the changes that have been made have been open and decided by the will of the people, rather than hashed out in secret.

Thursday night, my band (the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division Band) played a concert at Ft. Drum, NY. Our closing piece (not counting the encore of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever") was Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." Yet again, the cynic will complain that this piece was written to commemorate the Russian victory over Napoleon and has nothing to do with the United States. (In fact, the closing section of the overture contains the Russian hymn "God Save the Czar," a sentiment that is certainly at odds with the non-kingly nature of American government.) What the cynic forgets is that we play the music for other reasons: it's exciting! It's popular! And we get to fire cannons! (Believe me, the performance is much more exciting with real artillery. You don't hear the difference so much as feel it.) American audiences love it because it is great music, and they connect with the emotional triumph that the piece represents. (In the same way, our national anthem is "The Star-Spangled Banner" because of its association with Francis Scott Key's poem, not because we remember the Anacreontic society that inspired the tune's composition.)

Sometime within the past week or two, I saw a headline somewhere about how poor Americans are more likely to suffer from obesity. I think this says something about how blessed we are as a nation: we are probably the only place in the world where the poor are too fat rather than too thin.