Fred Armisen Plays the Hits

'SNL,' 'Portlandia' star performs songs from his iPod in Brooklyn

Fred Armisen performing at Union Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Julie Holder for RollingStone.com
Fred Armisen performing at Union Pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
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I was planning on starting this review by recommending that Fred Armisen speak to his booking agent. The dates of his residency at Brooklyn's Union Pool coincided with the Super Bowl, the Grammys, and, last night, the Oscars.

However, there was no need for concern, because when I arrived, the outdoor patio of the venue was filled with fans eager to see the Saturday Night Live star perform his playlist live, although no one was quite sure what that meant. As we waited outside for the doors to open, a crowd bundled up in army jackets, neon ski caps and hand-knit scarves debated over cans of Budweiser whether they were about to see a set of cover songs or comedy, or something else entirely. Endearingly, no one seemed to care either way. They were just excited to see Fred do his thing, whatever it may be.

During the long, cold hour between the advertised start time of 8 p.m. and the time the doors actually opened, a few devotees succumbed, departing for Oscar parties or bed. It was a work night, after all. The diehard fans who remained shuffled into the small venue behind a popular Brooklyn bar.

Despite the number of fans who left, and the Oscar parties in full swing, the room quickly filled with anticipation. Show-goers stared at a stage filled with a jumble of musical instruments, including a keyboard, guitar, a drum kit, drum pads, and, most notably, a Quintron Drum Buddy. Armisen soon emerged on stage, thanked everyone for coming despite the Oscars, and asked people following the awards show coverage on their phones to tell him if his SNL coworker Kristen Wiig won. Then he picked up his guitar and began fidgeting with a loop pedal. He dropped the guitar, moved to the drums, played a few beats, then returned to the guitar and began singing the Clash's "Police on My Back" over the looped accompaniment.

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Starting the show with the Clash quickly established that he was playing for the right room. The crowd was singing along from the first note, entranced that this television star liked exactly the same music as they did. This enchantment continued with each additional song culled from Armisen's playlist, including the Stranglers and the Damned and culminating when he wrapped up Hüsker Dü's "Never Talking to You Again" and an excited audience member shouted, "Thank you for knowing who Hüsker Dü is!"

After a few songs performed solo with a mad scientist-meets-one-man band zeal, rushing from instrument to instrument to create his sound loops, Armisen welcomed to the stage his longtime friend, Chicago-area musician Azita. The addition of her keyboards and vocals allowed him to relax and focus less on the technological challenges of looping a Quintron with a guitar track. Armisen assured the audience that he wasn't planning on putting out an album, because there are "better people to do that." He made it clear that he was just a fan playing his favorite music with some of his friends.

It took several songs, and probably several beers, but eventually that fact sunk in. The audience got louder and more involved, turning the show from a one-man performance into an interactive party, with people shouting questions from the back of the room, which Armisen patiently answered. The only comments he seemed determined to ignore were those from the (presumably) drunk girl in the front row who kept shrieking, "You're sexy!"

Before launching into a cover of Kraftwerk's "Pocket Calculator," Armisen assured the crowd that he couldn't secure tickets to the band's upcoming residency at New York's Museum of Modern Art, either.  It was harder to keep up the Average Joe mystique when he invited more friends to the stage, and they were Amber Coffman from Dirty Projectors and Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav. The audience didn't seem to mind the disconnect, though. Why should they? There's no denying that there's something attractive about being invited into a performer's living room while he spins records for you for an $8 door charge. Especially when his New Order cover ("Ceremony") is that good.

See for yourself. Armisen plans on making these shows a regular occurrence. He's already taking requests.