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Weird Al Yankovic remains a master at musical manipulation

Brian VanderBeek
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MODESTO, Calif. — For 35 years, listeners to Weird Al Yankovic have focused on his words.

Of course, that is the stock in trade for every performer whose livelihood is based on putting new words to already-successful melodies and styles, and Yankovic is the all-time undisputed champion of that sparsely populated genre.

But as Yankovic’s craft has developed from the early accordion-based song parodies, through his full cinematic years on MTV and into the current stage of his career, his clever words have been paired with a equally strong force.

The guy has put together a fierce backing band. Yankovic’s recordings have sold more copies than any other comedy act in history.

The long curls and Hawaiian shirts remain the visual trademarks of the 52-year-old architecture degree-holding Cal Poly grad, and he’ll still strap on the accordion for a large chunk of the show.

But as he has displayed since his early albums and continues in his 13th studio effort, the June release “Alpocalypse,” the full Weird song treatment includes an uncanny reproduction of the original music. In many ways, when Yankovic takes over a song, it’s more of a musical tribute than many pure “tribute” bands have the chops to muster.

“We put a lot of attention to those musical details and the band knows the drill, that we’re trying to emulate the music as closely as possible,” Yankovic said in a phone interview.

“The joke now is to sucker the people into thinking they’re hearing the original song, before taking a left-hand turn. We get complements from the bands and artists about the way we’re able to pick their songs apart, even picking up the nuances they threw into their recordings. We duplicate that exact sound the best we can.”

That’s more difficult than it may seem when you consider the range of styles the Weird Al show will present.

The current tour includes Yankovic’s words to a wide scope of artists. A Miley Cyrus hit becomes “Party in the C.I.A.,” Green Day’s song is turned into “Canadian Idiot,” Michael Jackson becomes “Fat,” Nirvana “Smells Like Nirvana,” and the new showstopper from Lady Gaga morphs into “Perform This Way.”

Each is presented in Yankovic’s own celebration-of-all-things-nerdy style, with frequent costume changes, big-screen videos and, above all, with a family-friendly style that has been another key to Yankovic’s longevity as a performer.

“The nice thing about my show is that it appeals to age groups at a different levels,” Yankovic said. “The younger kids might enjoy the costume more, and the older fans probably get more out of the classic rock.

“We do the same kind of tour all the time, but each one gets bigger and better and more elaborate as we incorporate more recent material. We just try to step it up every time out.”

The biggest change in Yankovic’s act has come in the business side, well away from the spotlight.

“Alpocalypse” sold 44,000 units in the week of its debut. By comparison, his 1996 release, “Bad Hair Day,” which included his controversial “Amish Paradise” Coolio parody, sold more than 1.3 million copies in the U.S. alone.

His new release charted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200, the highest position ever for a Yankovic release, underscoring that long gone are the days in which an act can survive on album sales alone.

“I tour now about the same amount as I always have, but touring now is my bread and butter,” Yankovic said. “It used to be you’d tour to sell your records, and now you sell records so you can tour. As you may have heard, the recording industry isn’t doing so well these days.”

But the sales or lack thereof have not affected the Yankovic live show, which remains unwaveringly entertaining and firmly based in clever words set to familiar music, faithfully performed.

“It’s a good time,” Yankovic said. “I try to give people their money’s worth. It’s a rock show and it’s a comedy show and it’s a good time for all ages.”

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