Unwigged & Unplugged: Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer Massey Hall, Toronto, May 21
Published May 22, 2009Messr, Guest, McKean and Shearer (a.k.a. Spinal Tap, a.k.a. The Folksmen of A Mighty Wind) made the lone Canadian stop on their Unwigged & Unplugged tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary of This is Spinal Tap's cinematic release and to promote their forthcoming album, Back From The Dead. The near-capacity crowd of largely middle-aged fans at Massey Hall adored the part-multimedia/quasi-cabaret show that freely mixed laughs with music over 125 minutes.
Instead of cranking their amps to 11, Guest, McKean and Shearer strummed acoustic guitars and invited their record producer CJ Vanston to pound the keyboards on several numbers. McKean handled most of the vocals, opening the show with a stripped-down "Hell Hole," then alternating between A Mighty Wind's folk and Spinal Tap's metal. Guest offered harmonies while juggling acoustic guitar solos, the mandolin, and the didgeridoo (on "Clam Caravan"). Meanwhile Shearer plucked a mean electric and upright bass, the latter of which rocked a jazzy, finger-snappin' version of "Big Bottom," a definite highlight.
The Mighty Wind numbers featured sweet harmonies and beautiful playing, particularly in McKean's duets with his wife, actress Annette O'Toole, on "The Good Book Song" and "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." However, the Spinal Tap numbers were a revelation in their radically different acoustic form.
Toronto saw the second performance of an a capella "Saucy Jack," originally excerpted from Tap's unfinished stage musical honouring Jack the Ripper, yet only recently fleshed out by McKean and Vanston. "Sex Farm" featured a barbershop-quartet break straight out of Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to The Music." The show closed with swinging versions of "Give Me Some Money" and "Heavy Duty Rock and Roll," propelled by Guest's squealing wah-wah.
Then there was the banter, the video clips, and the audience Q&A that elevated what would've been an entertaining evening of good music into something different and memorable. "We did a run-though of the songs one day and realized they all run two minutes and forty-five seconds," explained Shearer after the show. "We thought, 'Oh fuck, how are we going to fill this up?'" The trio put their heads together and came up with a show that literally spoke to its audience. For once, shedding character and speaking as creators, Guest, McKean, and Shearer basically threw open the curtain and laid bare the stories behind the songs. A hilarious moment came when each of them read the NBC censor's notes of July 12, 1984 urging cuts to the TV premiere of This is Spinal Tap ("43:30 – Business with crotch and cucumber"). Other times it was just plain fun, like picking the audience member from seat G47 to wear 3-D glasses right in front of the stage as McKean and Shearer gyrated during a rendition of "(Listen to) The Flower People." The band projected two videos made by fans, including an ingenious one animating Spinal Tap in Lego to "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight." Sure, Spinal Tap was never a real rock band and The Folksmen were a fiction, but this was one musical reunion which felt genuine.