[17 December 2009]
If you had told me the first time I saw Andrew W.K., lo those many years ago, that one day I’d be in a church watching him play a lovely piano and cello version of Bach’s “Prelude in C major/Ave Maria”... well, honestly, I would probably have been too bruised, exhausted and exhilarated to really notice what you were saying. If you repeated it after I’d had a few liters of water and a nap, though, I would have laughed. Mr. “I Get Wet”. Mr. “Never Let Down”. Mr. “Party Hard”? Playing piano in a church? But, and this is a testament to just how charismatic W.K. is live, it would have triggered delighted laughter. I would have told you I just couldn’t wait to see how he’d pull it off.
In the wake of 55 Cadillac, his first album of “S.S.P.I.“s (that’s spontaneous solo piano improvisations), the idea of Andrew W.K. doing a concert of piano music rather than his particularly face-melting blend of rock, pop and heavy metal was a bit less immediately absurd. And he’s got more than enough instrumental chops and avant-garde leanings (even if those aren’t always apparent on his albums) to make it work. How he pulled it off was to bring the phenomenally talented Calder Quartet (making their Canadian debut) along, and to play a varied set that just assumed the audience was just as eager to hear classical and experimental music as it was some of Andrew W.K.‘s own brand of cheerful insanity. While I kind of doubt the young, ready-to-be-rowdy crowd (which seemed to be mostly Andrew W.K. superfans) had enough experience with the works of Fred Frith, Tristan Perich or even Philip Glass to have much context for the bulk of the concert (I know I didn’t), they happily and enthusiastically went along for the ride.
W.K. and cellist Eric Byers began with the aforementioned Bach piece as the rest of the Calder Quartet (Benjamin Jacobson, Andrew Bulbrook and Jonathan Moerschel) came in, and imperceptibly (at least if, again like me, you aren’t that familiar with the pieces being played) slipped into Frith’s “Friendly Gestures #4 and #3.” Initially when W.K. and Byers went from Bach to striking what seemed at first like random wrong notes (W.K. halts the Bach by messing up, then there’s a pause, then Byers messes up, etc.) the crowd laughed, but once the rest of the quartet joined in and the whole thing cohered a bit people seemed to genuinely appreciate the atonally conversational piece. Once that was done Andrew W.K. stopped playing and just sat raptly at his piano while the Calder Quartet played Perich’s “Interface”, which featured both their strings and some programmed “four-channel 1-bit music”, which harmonized with their playing in strange and often beautiful ways. Both acts seemed to genuinely enjoy not just playing with the other but also what the other was doing, and W.K. in particular was eager to have the audience applaud and appreciate his compatriots.
After “Interface” W.K. began the first of two S.S.P.I.s he would play over the course of the evening, beginning by pounding hard and steadily enough on the lower piano keys to produce a sound like thunder. Just when I thought his piece would be a kind of abstract noise thing, he broke out of the pattern to play something else; the wide-ranging improvisation that ensued is hard to nail down descriptively other than to say that it consistently sounded like the product of an active, restless mind, and that Andrew W.K.‘s fondness for big, bright “choruses” extends even to his piano work.
The end of the first set was probably the musical highlight of the night for me, with the Calder Quartet giving a beautiful and fervent take on Christine Southworth’s three-part “Honey Flyers”. It was a performance of impressive tone, range color and movement, and although I was low on cash I spent part of the intermission browsing the CDs they’d brought, determined to buy whatever had “Honey Flyers” on it (luckily for my wallet, none of the albums they had included it). I had never heard the Calder Quartet play before, but I would have gladly made my way to Toronto and back just to hear them play that composition.
After the intermission the quartet played a fine rendition of Glass’ “Company” and W.K. played another S.S.P.I. - one that, this time, included a lot of extra-musical action including W.K. hoisting the piano bench above his head while grunting into the microphone. Like a lot of what Andrew W.K. does, it was a striking moment because it was both totally sincere (something you might see at a really “arty” concert) and a little silly, and could be appreciated on both levels at once. In fact, from W.K.‘s demeanor the rest of the night, I’m pretty sure he wants you to respond both ways at once. After the S.S.P.I. both acts together launched into what I’m sure most of the crowd had been waiting for all along (although, to their credit, the applause for all of the more “difficult” material was sincere and hearty): Andrew W.K. songs played on piano and string quartet.
“I Get Wet” and “Party Hard”, it turns out, sound pretty amazing with this arrangement. Credit again has to go to the Calder Quartet for bringing such muscle and momentum to what were originally massive songs. Andrew W.K., as animated (if non-verbal, aside from sincere between-song thanks for coming because “It’s not us on stage that make tonight special, it’s all of us together, and you’re performing for us as much as we’re performing for you”) as he’d been all evening, started really getting into things. The quartet kept playing even as he turned on the thunder backing tracks for “I Love Toronto” (originally “I Love New York City”, and you could tell, because the backing track was just the CD played REALLY LOUD) and “Dance Party”. It was a medley of a bunch of his tracks, and the quartet was still able to add something to the songs. The place went a little crazy and not just because W.K. stopped banging on the piano to go nuts in front of the first row of pews and encourage everyone to get up. It never got as crazy as all concerned clearly kind of wished it could (even the quartet, who were grinning even as they sawed away), which was partly due to the fact that we were all in a church with fixed pews, but the energy was there nonetheless.
We didn’t get the closing performance of John Cage’s “4’33” that the program promised, but what we got was weirder and even more wonderful. W.K. came out with just Byers again, thanked the crowd effusively and said that while they were out of prepared material, Byers was going to play a tune we’d all recognize (and I did, although I had to do a little searching when I got to a computer to confirm it was Bach’s “Prelude” from the first cello suite - whether you recognize the title or not, you’ve heard it in films, TV, and so on) and he was going to do an interpretative dance in honor of Merce Cunningham, relatively recently deceased dean of American dance who was a big influence on Andrew W.K..
Similar to his piano bench antics early on, W.K.‘s dance (where he went from acting like a zombie, to a T-Rex, to a tree, to Andrew W.K. all without making a sound but clearly fully exerting himself) was both extremely funny and completely serious; a real and sincere homage as well as a lot of fun. It was a weird end to a weird night, one that was a perfect fit for a performer dedicated to trashing our conceptions of what ought to be party music and how we ought to act in public much more than he’s dedicated to trashing hotel rooms.