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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Last Night: "Unwigged and Unplugged" at the Paramount Theatre

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 8:21 AM

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Unwigged and Unplugged
Paramount Theatre
April 22, 2009
Better than:
Well, maybe a little better than watching Anvil! The Story of Anvil. But you should still see that movie, too.

The concept behind "Unwigged and Unplugged" is a straightforward one. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer -- the three musical wits behind Spinal Tap and the Folksmen -- are on tour, showcasing their songs without benefit of striped spandex, cranked Marshall stacks, chinstrap beards, or strategically placed zucchinis. Since This Is Spinal Tap is now 25 years old, you can forgive the three for looking and dressing somewhat more avuncularly than they used to. Maybe they're feeling their age, too: Shearer snarks often about "on the Internets, where the kids go," and Guest tries to explain what a B-side used to be for younger members of the audience.

Shearer plays a standup bass, while McKean's overpolished acoustic guitar regularly dazzles the crowd. Guest switches among guitars and mandolins. They ramble amiably between songs, seemingly enjoying the adulation, although Guest is by far the quietest of the three.

They harmonize beautifully on "Clam Caravan" -- "That was a typo," McKean explains. "It was supposed to be 'Calm Caravan.' There are no clams in the desert, obviously." -- and crack each other up when they have to restart a song. "Simon Cowell is scowling," Shearer scoffs. There were a few problems with the sound: "Johnnie Ray had it tough," McKean quips, in a joke only 17 Morrissey fans might have got. Mostly, they perform the songs deadpan and straight. Guest is given a didgeridoo for one song, and makes a horrible noise with it before using it to trumpet "THIS IS REALLY HARD!"

One lucky audience member is given a pair of 3D glasses and invited to watch the show from the foot of the stage, where he is treated to a full-on eye-rolling, tongue-waggling, guitar-thrusting display from Shearer and McKean, who assure him that the glasses give him special 3D hearing as well.

After gleefully quoting the New York Times front-page headline that declared that Elvis Presley died while "straining at stool" ("Look it up!" Shearer exhorts. I did. The story was written by Molly Ivins, no less, but that line doesn't appear -- there is, however, a mention of his earlier hospitalization for a "blockage of the colon"), the three cover Shearer's "All Backed Up," a tribute to Elvis and, yes, his bowels.

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A screen above the stage is used to show fan-made videos of Tap songs, including "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight" (featuring Lego figures), plus a 1984 clip titled "Cheese Rolling," which Shearer says was the original theater trailer for Spinal Tap. It features the band plus Ed Begley Jr., the Runaways' Cherie Currie, and (allegedly) a young Jake Gyllenhaal taking part in a Monty Pythonesque Scandinavian cheese
festival/country dancing/suicide ritual.

The highlights of the show, naturally, are those that relate to Spinal Tap. The screen displays quotes from the report by the deliciously perfectly named NBC censor Bill Clotworthy, who ruled that This Is Spinal Tap was too obscene even to show in a late-night TV slot. The three read damning quotes from Clotworthy's report on the film to rapturous applause:

"8 minutes: 'Fucking Limeys.'"
"12 minutes 40: 'Shit sandwich.'"
"18 minutes 30: 'Armadillos in our trousers.'"
"66 minutes: The lyrics to 'Sex Farm' are unacceptable."


It's a hoot to hear "Big Bottom" with "Fever"-style fingersnappings (and a twirling black-clad dancer shaking her booty alongside the three for emphasis), while when they switch gears as the Folksmen, their cover of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" as a galloping folk ditty is riotous. "You make a dead man come-BAYA!" indeed.  

It had to happen: Someone shouts, "Turn it up to 11!" McKean squints into the spotlights and says matter-of-factly, "We get 8 1/2 out of these," pointing to their acoustic guitars. "Worked for Fellini. Works for us."

For "Stonehenge," the band asks the audience to make spooky wind noises that echo mournfully around the Paramount. Instead of the famous 18-inch model that appeared in the movie, a miniature version of the 'Henge descends shakily on wires on the video screen; instead of live dwarves, two pink-haired troll dolls are wiggled around in front of the stones by disembodied black-sleeved arms. It's sweet and silly all at once. In a brief Q&A interlude, someone asks the three what happened to Viv "Have a good time... all the time" Savage, and someone else shouts out that he's here. (No sign of the mighty man, though.) One audience member asks somewhat plaintively, "Why do you always kill the drummer? What's wrong with us?" This leads the three into a long and not particularly funny anecdote about how drummers always have car trouble and are late to rehearsals. The show is all too short; they end with a beatboxing rap on "Sex Farm," and it's time to go.
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Vicky Walker

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