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Weird Al – Strings Attached at the State Fair

I can cross “See ‘Weird Al’ in concert” off of my bucket list.

The scene: The Minnesota State Fairgrounds – aka “The Great Minnesota Get Together.”

It was a gorgeous evening for strolling around the crowded fair ahead of the concert. I managed to drop around $22 on a corn dog, French fries, and a chocolate malt… but man, it was all very good (I’m serious).

The State Fair is a Minnesota institution and the moniker still seemed appropriate, the crowd being surprisingly diverse with the metro area-urban hipsters rubbing shoulders with livestock-growing out-state visitors. There’s more of an ethnic cross-section than one might imagine and it’s amusing to see diverse people sharing in these often-quirky regional experiences.

In short, it was a melting pot mix, with political booths for all manner of candidates co-existing with pro-Islam and Christian religious interests, the next display or booth or building over staffed by someone selling metal polish or some new fruit peeling innovation. The media would lead you to believe that people wearing “Make America Great Again” hats couldn’t safely be next to hysterical progressives (and vice-versa), but I can confirm that such a place can exist – they’re all standing in line together for the privilege of spending $17 on a bucket of chocolate chip cookies.

Anyway.

‘Weird Al’ had been a part of my life since the 1980s, when his early parody songs seemed hilarious and even a little edgy in a grade-school context. His music was a playground talker and he kept popping up in my life over the years. There was discovering “UHF” on home video and then getting his early greatest hits CDs soon after I obtained my first Sony Discman.

As Al managed to remain relevant into the later 1990s, he was popular amongst friends at college with his hits like “Amish Paradise.”

I’d lost touch with Al’s work over the last ten or fifteen years, but I would notice from time to time his concerts appearances in Minnesota. He’d popped up regularly at the State Fair, regularly to the point that I took him for granted. In recent years though, I’ve tried to make an effort to stop taking such performers for granted as both they and I age. I signed up for Al’s newsletter last fall and made sure to jump on a ticket when they went on sale for his latest State Fair visit.

I didn’t realize how popular the ‘Weird Al’ concert was going to be. By chance a few days prior to the event, I learned that my single ticket near the stage that I’d paid a mere $31 for last winter had seats nearby it going for nearly $200 online in the days prior to Al’s arrival. Yes, the concert had apparently sold out.

The State Fair’s grandstand concert setup was deceptively more intimate than I might have guessed. I was later shocked to learn that there were just under 14,000 people in the crowd.

Al’s arrival was in the air ahead of the concert though, as food vendors played his music in the background of some stands, easily heard as I wandered around the grounds. The Al fan demographic of ‘sweaty white guy’ was strongly represented but there was along a broader representation, and not just tagalong girlfriends or wives.

So yeah, it was a gorgeous night outside, although a few dark and puffy rain clouds threatened the scene but ultimately didn’t deliver more than a few drops. The bigger issue for the production seemed to be the strange ill-preparedness of the orchestra in dealing with a stiff breeze. The show started nearly 50 minutes late and skipped over what would have apparently normally been a string of movie theme-centric orchestral songs as the performers tried to figure out how to prevent sheet music from blowing away.

Instead, when the orchestra did appear on stage after the announced delay, they were accompanied by the ‘Weird Al’ supporting band. Eventually, Al himself came on stage and the concert got rolling.

A statistic flashed on the video screen at one point that claimed Al to be the veteran of 1000 shows and, given his four decades of experience that number might be underselling the truth. His show was very polished, just like one might expect. The guy’s many costume changes were shockingly seamless and seemed to happen every song or two.

At least a couple of times, Al walked down from the stage, strolling up the wide aisles and playing with various members of the crowd. During a parody romantic ballad, he even pulled a pair of boxers from the front of his pants that he proceeded to stuff into the face of an eager female fan.

The 41-person orchestra that was literally behind Al on the stage was the basis for the entire “Strings Attached” concert tour name (and gimmick). In looking over other reviews of the show, I saw that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the symphony managed to largely get muted by the sounds of the performers in front of them that used instruments that were amplified.

As I indicted earlier, I’ll be candid that my familiarity with Al’s work tapered off into the 2000s, so many of the songs that seemed somewhat new to me were likely familiar to fans who had bought Al’s last two or three albums. There were some new discoveries for me as a result, along with familiar favorites.

A video screen on stage was used throughout the show and it often played vintage videos that originally went with Al’s songs. “Jurassic Park” was a notable favorite of the crowd near the start of the show.

The video screen also played a role in reminding the audience of Al’s cultural relevance. Clips from television shows dated back to Johnny Carson name-dropping Al in a 1980s-era monologue and included mentions on “Friends” and a musical number on “The Simpsons,” to name but a few of the references.

To the surprise of no one, “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” came early, following a wind-up by Al in which he claimed that he was ‘home’ in Minnesota and the crowd roared with approval. A local news story earlier in the week had involved the town of Darwin, Minnesota – home of that ball of twine – having named a street ‘Al Alley’ after Yankovic. They apparently sent a delegation to the concert.

At a glance, the show leaned heavily on that more-recent music, as well as some of Al’s 1990s hits. The 1980s weren’t entirely neglected, although the recent controversies with Michael Jackson surely led to the omission of such Al staples as “Eat It” and “Fat.” I understand why Al might skip those songs, but at the same time, those tunes were very much his own. “Eat It” did get referenced at least a couple of times in video montages between songs, it simply didn’t get performed in full.

That said, familiar songs of the 1980s era like “Like a Surgeon” got a spotlight. “Dare to be Stupid” kicked off the second half of the show with a perfect ‘future tech’ costume turn for those on stage.

The 1990s staples of “Amish Paradise” and “Smells Like Nirvana” brought down the house near the end of the night, closing out the show ahead of an encore.

The encore of the evening ended up being two “Star Wars”-centric favorites. First, “The Saga Begins” – an odd song to reconsider twenty years after “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” and how Al was part of the tail end of that whole moment in pop culture. Like many of Al’s songs, both felt strangely outdated when performed decades later, but he’s lasted so long as a performer that such outdated-ness somehow twisted itself into a nostalgic charm. For better or worse, I was right back in the awkwardness that was summer of 1999 for a few minutes.

Thankfully, the concert didn’t end when that song concluded. No, it finished on another “Star Wars” note, albeit a more triumphant one, with the 1980s-era “Yoda.” Many in the crowd were waving arms to the chorus and a firework show began as that song spun up. Al even invited the crowd to sing along and it provided an enthusiastic choir.

Yes, a triumphant way to cross ‘Weird Al’ off of my list.

But not fully a good-bye? I’d certainly be game for another Al concert in a couple of years. The orchestra gimmick was perhaps oversold but it had its place in a few songs. Al himself was a master performer live though and that kind of talent is always special to see. He never broke character, dripping sarcasm in his audience interactions. He’s a performer that you have to believe is having a great time on stage and the massive crowd was absolutely in love with him.

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