CHICAGO, April 12 (UPI) — Gone are the elaborate costumes, the wacky props and the giant projection screen. Also absent are the famous — sometimes infamous — parody songs.
But don’t worry, this isn’t “Normal Al” Yankovic.
“I just wanted to do something different, because I’ve been doing the same kind of show for three decades, and every single time we go out on the road we try to make it bigger and better than the time before,” veteran performer “Weird Al” Yankovic told UPI of his ongoing Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.
“I wanted to do something completely different, so we went the whole other direction and decided to make it as bare-bones a tour as possible,” Yankovic said. “So it’s literally just me and the guys in the band walking out on stage and playing music.”
The 58-year-old comedic songwriter, who has been recording and touring with his band for three decades, said the Vanity Tour, which is nearing the midpoint of its 77-city engagement, serves two main purposes: Providing a more intimate musical experience for the audience and highlighting the original songs that often go overlooked in his catalog.
“I want it small and intimate, I want to feel like I’m playing somebody’s living room, essentially,” Yankovic said. “The intimate vibe was always what I had in mind and it feels great, I really enjoy doing these shows. It feels like I’m just hanging out with people.”
He said the parodies, which have been his signature since he first started sending homemade tapes to the Dr. Demento Radio Show as a teenager, were left out for a reason.
“I wanted to focus on the songs that kind of fall between the cracks,” Yankovic said. “Most of the songs we’re playing on this tour we’ve never played live before.”
The set list is in constant flux, but Yankovic’s Saturday show in Chicago featured such “Weird Al” anti-classics as “Mr. Frump in the Iron Lung,” a song Yankovic wrote at age 17; “Velvet Elvis,” a tribute to the Synchronicity-era Police; and “Let Me Be Your Hog,” an extremely brief cut from Yankovic’s 1989 film UHF, which he jokingly told Saturday’s audience was the inspiration for the obscure song theme of his tour.
Yankovic said the aim was to highlight “stuff that never ranks very high on anybody’s list of favorite ‘Weird Al’ songs, but we’re playing them anyway because they’re fun to play.”
The performer conceded there were limits to how obscure he and bandmates Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz, Steve Jay, John “Kimo” West and Ruben Valtierra were willing to go.
Some songs, such as “Hardware Store,” “Genius in France” and “Pancreas,” were considered too technically complicated to play in the tour’s stripped-down style, while others, such as 1983’s “Buckingham Blues,” were considered too dated.
“I don’t think anybody wants to hear about Princess Diana’s wedding at this point,” Yankovic said.
“And there are some songs that are just too stupid or gross, like ‘Gotta Boogie’ — too juvenile that we just decided, ‘no, we’re not gonna do that,” he said.
Cover songs and old favorites
Another unusual aspect of Yankovic’s current tour is the addition of cover songs — played in the style of the original artists, using the original lyrics. He said each night of the tour includes a different cover in the set list.
“Sometimes we try to match a song with the venue and sometimes we try to do a song that would be specifically not appropriate for the venue, like when we played ‘Close to You’ at the Apollo,” Yankovic said. “So we just try to have fun with it and try to keep people on their toes.”
Saturday night’s show, the second of a two-night engagement in the Windy City, featured a rendition of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” a tribute to the time when the two acts toured together in the 1980s.
Fans of more typical “Weird Al” fare needn’t abandon all hope, his famous parody songs do have representation in the Vanity Tour, albeit not in the way longtime fans might be used to. “Eat It” played to the tune of Eric Clapton’s “Layla” instead of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” kicked off a medley of selections from Yankovic’s greatest hits performed in varying styles, including “I Lost on Jeopardy,” “Amish Paradise,” “Smells Like Nirvana,” “White and Nerdy,” “I Love Rocky Road” and “Like a Surgeon.”
The final song of the night was the only song parody performed in its original form: “Yoda,” a Star Wars-themed send-up of the Kinks’ “Lola.”
Yankovic said playing the “stripped-down” shows of the Ill-Advised Vanity Tour is a different experience than the highly theatrical and sometimes manic shows he has been putting on for 30 years.
“I’m not frantic and hyper the entire time. It’s a much more relaxed show,” he said, before adding that the video clips he usually plays during his concerts afforded him the chance to “regroup before the next song.”
“Now I’m on stage the entire time, so there’s no escape hatch. But it’s something I adjusted to pretty quickly,” he said.
The singer said the different style of the tour has been causing him and his bandmates to push themselves in new ways.
“This tour is really focusing on the music, as opposed to everything that goes along with the music,” he said. “I think it’s really making us better as performers and as players and probably me as a singer as well.”
Touring with Emo Phillips
Accompanying Yankovic on his tour is opening comedian Emo Philips, who appeared alongside Yankovic in UHF.
“Back in 1989, when we were filming UHF, I asked Al, ‘When are we going to tour together?’” Philips recounted to the audience at the start of his 30-minute set. “He replied, ‘When Donald Trump is president.’ Small price to pay!”
Yankovic said Philips is the first opening act he has brought on tour with him.
“It’s really a dream. I’ve never traveled with an opening act before, and I can’t imagine anybody else I’d rather tour with. He was my first choice and I’m very happy that he’s on the ticket with us,” Yankovic said.
His appreciation for Philips was on full display during the concert, as he brought the comedian out for an extra bow after every third song, eliciting chants of “Emo, Emo, Emo,” from the audience.
“He’s killing it ever night, he’s so funny, it could not be a better match,” Yankovic said.
The Hamilton Polka
One zeitgeist-capturing song that didn’t make the cut for the current tour was “The Hamilton Polka,” an accordion-heavy medley of some of the most popular songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical.
Yankovic said the song, which Miranda released March 2 as part of his monthly series of “Hamildrops,” was first suggested by the playwright about a year ago. He said the project ended up on hold due to the uncertain state of the Hamilton Mixtape Vol. 2, but Miranda approached him again at the end of January to ask him to record the song as soon as possible.
“I put it together and recorded it right before I left for the tour and it came out on Feb. 30 — which is really March 2 — but he needed a ‘Hamildrop’ for February and I couldn’t get it to him any earlier than that,” Yankovic said with a laugh.
Creating a crossword puzzle
Despite a busy touring schedule with shows up to six nights a week, Yankovic has managed to find time for some other projects, including co-authoring the April 4 crossword puzzle in The New York Times.
Yankovic said he “jumped at the chance” when the Times approached him about working a puzzle.
“They paired me with Eric Berlin, who is one of their top crossword puzzle writers — this is his 40th New York Times crossword puzzle — and we just knocked some ideas around,” he said.
He said his initial idea was to base the puzzle on his own “childhood and current musical influences,” which he said would include “everybody from Spike Jonze to The Lonely Island,” but they ultimately decided to go with a “Cheesy Film Festival” theme, which brought about a series of movie-based cheese puns.
Yankovic said some of his clues ended up being changed by the Times before it went to print.
“There was one for the word ‘eel.’ I think my clue was ‘that’s a-moray,’ and the guy changed it to ‘fish with tiny scales.’ I thought mine was more clever, but you know, gotta go with their final decision,” he laughed. “It was a lot of fun.”
‘Comedy Bang Bang’
Yankovic’s other recent projects include serving as co-host and band leader for the final season of IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang with Scott Auckerman.
“I’d been on the show a few times before and Scott and I were old friends and he just said, ‘Would you like to be the new bandleader?’ and I jumped at the chance because Comedy Bang Bang was one of my favorite shows,” he said. “How often do you get asked to co-star on your favorite show?”
“I got to do sketch comedy, which is something I don’t get a chance to do very often, so it was really a dream. I knew going into it that it was going to be the last season, so it was kind of bittersweet, but I enjoyed every minute of it,” Yankovic said.
The parodist said a return to live action TV is possible in the future, but most of his current energies are focused on the Vanity Tour, which is scheduled to run through June.
“There are a couple TV projects that we’re currently trying to develop, but nothing that’s for sure happening that I can talk about,” he said. “Everything after the tour is kind of a big question mark at this point.”
He said fan response to the tour has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I always thought there there would be a subset of fans out there who had been waiting for a show like this, but I had no idea how many there really were and it’s really gratifying to see this amazing response,” Yankovic said.
The tour continues Thursday night with a stop in Wabash, Ind.
Ben Hooper is UPI’s Odd News writer and a second-generation “Weird Al” interviewer who has now officially apologized to the singer for hanging up on him at the age of 12 when Yankovic called his house for a phone interview with his mother, an entertainment writer.