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Concert Review: Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls Revives Mock-Rock at the Wiltern

Spinal Tap reunited this week, after a good number of years apart. Unfortunately, it was to settle a collective lawsuit against Universal Music. Apart from saying “Gimme Some Money” to a corporate nemesis, it looks unlikely the three principals will be sharing a stage again any time soon — and so the duty of providing Tap musical-comedy to the faithful audience that would ask “How could I leave this behind?” has fallen to Derek Smalls, who, with handlebar mustache intact and natural hair color less so, headlined L.A.’s Wiltern Wednesday night with a mix of his new solo material and a handful of classic faux-classics.

If Mssrs. Tufnel and St. Hubbins are apparently no longer interested in gummin’ the gash, as it were, Smalls was there to fill the population gap at the Wiltern with a multitude of guest stars, live or on video, and a lavish, beautifully arranged and conducted 48-piece orchestra, overdressed in every conceivable sense for the occasion. At the Wiltern (which Smalls described as being a fine hall despite having been “named after a fictitious bird”), many fine lines were traversed and obliterated — not least of all the one that separates low comedy from even lower comedy — but the Tap faithful could finally feel clever, not stupid, for having assembled to celebrate the John Entwistle of the band.

How low can you go applies in all sorts of ways — the bawdiness, the bass fetishism, the gruff character voice. Well, not an affectation, in Entwistle’s historic case, and there were probably reasons why he was never a touring monster apart from the Who, including that no one probably thought that it would be a good idea to shout out requests for him to sing “Baba O’ Reilly” as well as “Boris the Spider.” Harry Shearer, the Mr. Burns behind these sideburns, solved that vocal problem by not applying his guttural vocal tones to “Sex Farm Woman,” et al., but assigning guests to sing the numbers originally sung by Michael McKean and Christopher Guest. Billy Idol got two, “Heavy Duty” and “Hellhole” (or two and a half, as he also contributed to the climactic “Big Bottom”), while house band members Keith England and Judith Owen led the way the other three Tap numbers. That still left plenty for Smalls/Shearer to do, vocally, on the 11 new songs, and in lengthy monologues that offered big glimpses into a small mindset.

Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap and Billy Idol at the Wiltern
CREDIT: Rob Shanahan

Idol was not the only idol to take part in the proceedings. Guitarist Waddy Wachtel (well, he’s a matinee idol to us) joined in on several numbers, Steve Lukather ripped the audience some new ones with his own shredding, Dweezil Zappa showed up to reprise his speed-metal solo contribution to the recent album’s “MRI,” and Paul Shaffer put in an appearance, not as Artie Fufkin, for better or worse, but as his pianist self. Other celebrities from the 2018 album “Smalls Change” made taped appearances on the big video screen, billed as live via satellite, including Steve Vai, Donald Fagen (looking seriously spooky in a hoodie as he sang the erectile hook “Willie don’t lose that lumber”), Jane Lynch (as a shrewish ex-wife or girlfriend in “She Puts the Bitch in Obituary”) and Rick Wakeman (“live from his old castle in Newcastle”). Modern click tracks are a marvelous thing, as Wakeman’s recorded keyboard soloing during “When Men Did Rock” blended seamlessly with the real-live soloing of house guitarist Marc Bonilla.

Having so many taped contributions might have been annoying in a “real” concert (and frequently is, given how many legit gigs actually have recorded celebrity duet parts on a big screen nowadays) but it’s less so at what is essentially a sketch comedy show first and musical event secondarily … albeit, when you’ve got contributors like Lukather and a full orchestra on hand, a very close second). The use of video made for punchlines as well as piped-in Vai. For “Stonehenge,” a supposed satellite feed from the titular side turned out to be several minutes of dim footage of a fog bank in the middle of the night — an okay gag. Better was the use of the “satellite” for the new song “Gummin’ the Gash.” “It’s become a bit of a cliché now for rockers of a certain age to perform with symphony orchestras,” Smalls said, so “we’re going to turn it up one. Tonight this will be a two-orchestra synchronized performance, because up in the middle of the night in Budapest, Hungary, where I believe they do have lights on, unlike Stonehenge, please welcome the Hungarian Studio Orchestra.” But “Gummin’” is by far the crudest song on the recent Smalls album — a combination of geriatric and sexual references we probably can’t reasonably describe in a family publication — and so the joke, a good one, was that the female members of the Budapest orchestra all get up and walk out en masse once they start hearing the lyrics of the song.

With apologies to Shearer, the best number of the night was the one he was entirely off-stage for. Since he’s married to the woman who was in the spotlight for the song, he might not mind the slight so much. This particular version of Spinal Tap’s “Sex Farm Woman” was performed, in a bravura turn, by gifted mimic Judith Owen as Dame Notting Leica — an unmistakable ringer for Dame Shirley Bassey at her brassiest, with the 48-piece Hollywood Chamber Orchestra playing what was unmistakably a perfectly arranged pastiche of John Barry’s James Bond themes. That “Sex Farm Woman” is not an obvious candidate to be turned into an homage to “Goldfinger” or “Diamonds Are Forever,” but was so perfectly, made you wonder whether maybe any song could be successfully turned into a Bond theme, if the arranging is being done by CJ Vanston (Shearer’s music director and the night’s likely MVP).

Owen also excelled earlier in the role of Arriana Uniboobulos, a hefty-chested soprano on loan from the Pasadena Opera, reviving the aria part on the latest record’s title track — a ballad that has Smalls explaining why his bandmates’ abandonment left him alone in carrying their black banner.

Speaking of opera, surtitles were projected onto the overhead screen along with visuals for a majority of the numbers, lest audience members unfamiliar with the “Smalls Change” album’s lyrics strain too much to translate Smalls’ more guttural singing into English. That was a relief, for catching all the gags in a night where there’s one laden literally into every couplet, even if it did sometimes have the effect of letting your eye catch the rhyming punchline a moment before the ear did. If your suspicion is that the Spinal Tap aesthetic is a one-joke one that must’ve worn out its welcome by now, Shearer established that there may be an unlimited number of comedic subgenres that can still be squeezed out of the main vain/clueless/deteriorating rocker one. Probably not a lot of mock-rock songs to date have combined the themes of boomer vanity and Satanism as adeptly as Shearer does in “Hell Toupee” —probably the recent record’s line-for-line funniest song, augmented in concert by a constant display of graphic images of the devil in moptops and rugs.

On a purely musical level, “Hell Toupee” is not much to speak of; it’s a song where Shearer may have been so proud of his couplets, he sacrificed the tune for them in the process. But with that said, there were plenty of other moments that did carry a significant charge just as rockers, like the contradictorily head-banging “MRI,” or the prog-gier “When Men Did Rock.” These songs provide a good excuse for those of us who have a secret, ancient love for hard rock shredding but wouldn’t normally go near it with a 10-foot pole in 2019 to re-engage, with meta levels of irony or lack of irony we’re probably better off not worrying about as Shearer lets Vai, Lukather, Wachtel and Bonilla do their thing. And then there was the honest majesty of the orchestra, truly a case of throwing pearls before swine.

Or maybe pearls before inflated phalluses is more like it, as the set-closing “Big Bottom” had a large-scale version of that song’s “flesh torpedo” drifting down from the balcony to the stage for the finale, a la Roger Waters’ pig on the wing. At this point, the show truly bottomed out in every way, and here, there’s really no possible way to position that as an insult.

When Spinal Tap first parodied this stuff in the early ‘80s, they were satirizing what nearly counted as a dominant strain of the punk-avoidant rock ‘n’ roll culture; now that brand of rock is remembered more via the spoof, probably, than the original thing. But with even more rarefied forms of rock on the wane in the 2010s, we may someday be at the point where future generations approach “This is Spinal Tap” not so much as satire as a complete science-fiction. At the Wiltern, anyway, with Shearer offering what seemed suspiciously like an affectionate farewell to the entire genre in “When Men Did Rock,” the audience could laugh at and embrace its waning power before the whole charade comes to be viewed by bewildered post-millennials as “11: A Space Odyssey.”

Concert Review: Spinal Tap's Derek Smalls Revives Mock-Rock at the Wiltern

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