Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer @ The Grove 4/23/09
In his “business casual” getup, Michael McKean, the writer and actor who portrays the character Derek St. Hubbins in the film This Is Spinal Tap, looks like he could have stepped out of a regional managers convention, until he opens his mouth. He’s onstage with his legs spread wide, his head tilted to the sky, strumming an acoustic guitar and intoning about “the majesty of rock and the pageantry of roll, the crowing of the cock, the running of the foal!” It’s all so deliberately goofy, and yet McKean’s performance is so stirring, it comes off as positively heartfelt.
Professional satirists though they may be, these guys aren’t entirely kidding.
As the members of Spinal Tap, Guest, McKean and Shearer straddle the line between “fake band” and “real band” like no other since the Monkees. Of course they’re an invention, with a made-up back story, but they’re also the creators of a truly excellent album, and have earned a following as a musical entity in their own right. Real-life Tap tours have been performed totally in character, using their ridiculous British accents for the between-song banter, and making use of semi-functional stage props just as you’d expect. They’ve also done appearances as The Folksmen, the Kingston Trio-esque group at the center of A Mighty Wind, including a stint as Tap’s opening act. But for this outing, the Unplugged and Unwigged Tour, they’ve taken it down a few notches by appearing in their civvies and their natural hair, getting rid of all the props, even ditching the rhythm section and the amplifiers.
And they pulled it off. Successfully mixing music and comedy is a tricky proposition, and these three have figured out that it only works when the music is good enough to be taken seriously. The performances of Folksmen songs were true to their original versions, and the Tap songs chosen generally worked well in the mellower format, particularly three numbers from their psychedelic music-hall period, including the rarely-heard "Rainy Day Sun" and "Clam Caravan". A few tunes, however, received radical re-arrangements. I was wondering whether they’d all play upright basses on "Big Bottom", but instead they re-wrote it as a snappy vocal jazz number, with Shearer’s bass the only instrument, while "Sex Farm" was given a slinky white-funk presentation, similar to the one the band played at the Greek in 2001.
They weren’t completely alone up there however. Periodically, they made use of a keyboard player, and McKean’s wife Annette O’Toole sang beautiful harmonies on a couple of the Mighty Wind selections. They also made use of a video screen, showing off fan videos posted on Youtube, as well as Spinal Tap’s very first appearance, from the little-known variety program The TV Show in 1978. Prior to the show, I’d never known this existed, maybe I’m just not very up on my faux history. But there’s no faking a good night out, and that, they delivered on all counts.