For a man of such hammy, spastic brilliance, “Weird Al” Yankovic doesn’t speak much onstage. The world’s most legendary pop parodist ended his Knoxville gig – the second date of his summer tour – with a spirited “Thank you, goodnight!,” grinning like a schoolboy as he gazed out at the confetti-covered masses. For two previous hours at the elegant Tennessee Theatre, he let his epic meta-pop absurdity do the talking for him.
Bouncing onstage to a shrill synthesizer ditty, Al and his four-piece backing band (guitarist Jim West, bassist Steve Jay, keyboardist Rubén Valtierra, drummer Jon Schwartz) quickly launched into “Polka Face,” a delirious medley of polka-fried covers from his latest album, 2011’s Alpocalypse. Segueing in absurdist glee from cornball electro-pop (Owl City’s “Fireflies”) to hip-hop (Kid Cudi’s “Day ‘n’ Nite”) to country (Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now”), this was Grade-A Yankovic in its purest form. With this guy, the entire Top 40 is up for grabs, so why not cram it all into one ridiculous package?
What followed was hardly the textbook definition of a “concert.” After finishing each song, Yankovic and company fled the stage for furious wardrobe changes; meanwhile, large screens projected a mix of goofy comedy sketches (a pointless riff on a Japanese game show called Wheel of Fish), awkwardly edited celebrity interviews (Antonio Banderas cutting the cheese, Robert Pattinson bumbling incoherently), and endless Al Nostalgia in the form of TV and movie clips (basically any Yankovic reference ever captured on tape).
When the versatile quintet did manage to strap on their instruments, they drew heavily from Alpocalypse, including a knee-slapping rendition of “CNR” (a tribute to the late Charles Nelson Reilly in the form of a Chuck Norris joke) and a spit-take worthy “Craigslist,” which featured Yankovic dressed in iconic Jim Morrison leather, channeling the singer’s intoxicated hippie bluster. A string of obscure gems emerged midway through the set, including “Rye or the Kaiser” (a hilariously nasally tribute to “Eye of the Tiger”) and the Knack knock-off “My Bologna.” During the hard-hitting New Wave stylings of “You Make Me,” Yankovic glared at his synth with a mad scientist menace, projecting the grandiose showmanship of an alternate-universe Ronnie James Dio.
Real talk: Nobody really catches a Weird Al show for the deep cuts. Unavoidably, the evening’s hugest shrieks were reserved for his tried-and-true parody anthems: the Michael Jackson-aping “Fat” (complete with monstrous fat suit), the choral Coolio send-up “Amish Paradise,” the still-sharp grunge zinger “Smells Like Nirvana” (with Yankovic dressed as Cobain slacker, gurgling water and spraying the audience in a fumbled spit-bath).
There’s a strangely communal quality to the Weird Al experience: few artists are able to wrangle such a disorienting blend of faces. Before the show, a balding middle-aged man proudly displayed his “Touring with Scissors” T-shirt, as buzzing couples traded set list stories and frat boys snapped selfies under a poster of Al’s wise visage. Two rows from the stage, a mother and daughter clutched a copy of When I Grow Up, a children’s book Yankovic penned in 2011. But the evening’s most familial moment came at the end: with the stage lined with costumed Storm Troopers, Yankovic led the crowd through a stripped-down sing-along version of “The Saga Begins,” transforming the Don McLean classic “American Pie” into his signature Star Wars parody. Swaying in a collective wave, nerds of all varieties swooned with that silly chorus (“Soon I’m gonna be a Jedi!”) as if the words held a deep emotional resonance. And it’s possible they did.
At a Weird Al show, there is no easy definition of “cool,” if there is one at all. As the house lights broke, the singer’s minions scattered into the night, pooling into giddy oceans of smiles. And there was Al, pop’s eternal court jester, silently soaking in the spectacle.