Oftentimes, multi-million-selling musical performers will take stock of their careers and realize that there are other ways to tell the story — other genres, other configurations. Orchestras and complex arrangements are typically involved in these late-career retrospectives.
It can even be a single number, wrought in a recording studio and too complex to deliver properly live, that inspires such a gathering of orchestral firepower. This was the case on Tuesday night for "Weird Al" Yankovic at Berglund Performing Arts Theatre.
Introducing one of his deepest and most obscure cuts, Yankovic laid out his reasoning.
"This song is a big reason we are doing this particular tour," Yankovic said. "It's always been one of my favorite songs. I wrote it a long time ago, but we've never played it live. The main reason for that is, I didn't want to do the song unless we could do it properly, unless we could do it with a 41-piece symphony orchestra.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he continued, his voice rising in volume and intensity, "tonight we have a 41-piece orchestra!"
Then the artist led his band and three backup singers through the mid-20th-century-cartoon-style ditty, "Harvey The Wonder Hamster." All 20-odd seconds of it.
"Oh Harvey, Harvey, Harvey the wonder hamster / He doesn't bite, he doesn't squeal / He just runs around on his hamster wheel," they sang, as the Roanoke area's finest symphonic musicians bowed, blew and drummed behind him, and Arnie Roth — who has conducted the London Philharmonic and whose regular gig is leading the Chicagoland Pops Symphony — worked the baton.
That madcap snippet may be the essence of Yankovic, 59, an accordion player who has done the unthinkable, making a pop culture icon of himself by writing song parodies and style pastiches that keep generations of fans laughing. A sold-out crowd of 2,148 laughed plenty in a set that lasted about 90-minutes, chanting "Weird Al! Weird Al!" before his "Star Wars"-centric encore.
Roth and the orchestra, featuring Roanoke Symphony Orchestra players (though the RSO itself was not involved), warmed up the crowd for nearly a half hour with John Williams movie soundtrack classics culled from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Superman" and "Star Wars," and Lalo Schifrin's "Mission Impossible" theme.
Yankovic would keep the orchestra busy during his set, too.
He started with a medley of songs from early in his career, "I Lost on Jeopardy," "I Love Rocky Road" and "Like A Surgeon," based on 1980s hits from Madonna, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts and The Greg Kihn Band. Those tunes were big when MTV ruled the music video world, and Yankovic had many of his own videos showing on a large screen behind the performers. Nowadays, lyric videos are big on Youtube, and Yankovic had one for "Word Crimes," the English lesson send-up of Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines."
"You need a full-time proofreader, you mouth breather / You should hire some cunning linguist / To help you distinguish what is proper English," he sang.
He went back to his mid-'80s oeuvre with "One More Minute," an Elvis Presley-style pastiche during which he wandered into the audience. He sat on a woman's lap as he crooned his best. He threw his left leg over the shoulder of another woman, then gave her a scarf. Back on stage, he pulled a pair of polka-dotted boxers from his pants and tossed it to another couple of women in the front row.
He was the opposite of a cheesy romantic on "Jackson Park Express," in which he sang, "I never, ever want to see you cry, so please, let me cauterize your tear ducts with an arc welder." The holiday music takeoff, "Weasel Stomping Day," was bizarre, with a claymation video that PETA members would protest.
More hits followed: "Tacky," based on Virginia Beach native Pharrell Williams' "Happy"; a parody of Nirvana's breakout hit called "Smells Like Nirvana"; and the Devo-style "Dare to be Stupid." He and his entire band, during one of multiple costume changes, donned Amish-style clothing for one of his staples, "Amish Paradise." The original, Coolio smash "Gangsta's Paradise," relied on a sample from the Stevie Wonder number "Pastime Paradise." Behind "Weird Al," the string section brought it to life.
In between all the costume changes, videos of various ludicrous scenes played, including the Funny or Die fake trailer for the fake movie "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story," including Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad" as Yankovic, and Patton Oswalt as his patron saint, Dr. Demento.
Just another wacky touch on a night of prime weirdness.