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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

"Unwigged and Unplugged" at the Chicago Theatre

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High atop my list of the best rock movies ever made, director Rob Reiner's "This Is Spinal Tap" (1984) succeeds partly because the spot-on satire reveals more truths about the absurdities of rock stardom and the music industry than any documentary on the subject.

The other reason it endures is that stars Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer clearly loved the music they were parodying, and they had the chops and the ears to create sounds of their own that actually deserve to be turned up to "11."

That music--as well as songs from Guest's films "A Mighty Wind" (2003) and "Waiting for Guffman" (1996)--was the focus of the trio's show at the Chicago Theatre Saturday. And what legendary front man David St. Hubbins called "The Majesty of Rock" was on full display.

As the longtime collaborators celebrate the 25th anniversary of "The Is Spinal Tap" with a DVD reissue and a new album, "Back from the Dead," they wisely decided to leave the spandex and the shtick at home and avoid pretending to be "England's loudest band." (When I saw them play C.B.G.B. as the mighty Tap in '84, the actors/musicians veered dangerously close to becoming what they were mocking, and it was even worse when they played "Big Bottom" with seven guest bassists at Live Earth in 2007.)

Instead, the threesome performed "Unwigged & Unplugged," with Guest and McKean on acoustic guitars, Shearer plucking electric or upright bass and all three on vocals. The 61-year-old Guest also played mandolin, and his virtuosity throughout--excluding a brief blast of didgeridoo--was a revelation. Not for nothing did he receive an honorary doctorate from the renowned Berklee College of Music in 2007.

With the exception of a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" rendered as early '60s campfire sing-along, McKean noted that all of the songs they performed were written "by some combination of the three of us." Adorned only by occasional keyboards from former Chicagoan C.J. Vanston and brief vocal turns by McKean's wife Annette O'Toole and Shearer's bride Judith Owen, the classic unplugged format highlighted the strength of their melodies and arrangements and emphasized the brilliantly subtle humor of their lyrics, both of which display a deep knowledge of and devotion to more than half a century of popular music.

Indelible tunes such as the heavy-metal anthems "Hell Hole" and "Sex Farm," the proto-Tap psychedelic nuggets "(Listen to the) Flower People" and "Rainy Day Sun" and the Folksmen standards "Corn Wine," "Blood on the Coal" and "A Mighty Wind" all could pass as actual relics of their respective eras if slotted into one of those ponderous history-of-rock TV specials, both because the vibe is that accurate and because the songs are that good.

Less worthy were the faux-show tunes from "Waiting for Guffman" (really, now, that's a target that's just too easy) and Shearer's campy Elvis parody "All Backed Up." But with a set list that ran to 25 songs before the encore and a show that lasted more than 2 ½ hours, that's a minor quibble.

Accuse the Tap trio of living on past glories if you will, but that was no preserved moose on stage. The truth is these veteran impersonators delivered one of the best evenings of music I've had this year.


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Great and accurate review. I was in the 2nd row. Not only a laugh riot, but these guys can SING and PLAY better than most! A solid 10 in my book!

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on May 31, 2009 8:52 AM.

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