Friday, May 11, 2012

Reggie Watts's "A Live At Central Park"


The phrase "feel-good album" is very rarely -- if ever -- attributed to a comedy CD but with the release of A Live at Central Park, Reggie Watts bucks the trend and presents us with what is undoubtedly the feel-good album of the summer (and yes, I know that technically it's still spring. Hush up). "But Ed," you may protest, "A summer feel-good album is one I can crank up in my car with the top down, groovy mellow beats and head bobbing-inducing rhythms bouncing off the cliffs of PCH." Yes, Guy In This Scenario Who Suddenly Became A Very Specific Demographic With A Convertible Who Is Within Driving Distance Of The Pacific Coast Highway, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

Once again Watts blew me away with his improvisational musical genius. Yes, that's right, these songs are completely composed and written on the spot. The fact that the music here is better than most written music being performed on most stages today is just the tip of the iceberg. You may be tempted to get lost in the beat while the lyrics flow past you unnoticed. Don't let that happen. The double whammy here is that what Watts is actually saying is some of the funniest, most clever wordplay to come out this year. And yes, just in case you were wondering, the words are improvised, too. 

Because of this, Watts should probably be loathed and resented by every working/struggling/living comedian and/or musician. Most of these artists toil over every word, every note, each phrasing, trying to construct the perfect punchline and catchy earworm-inducing hook. And then Watts comes on stage and this brilliance just falls out of his head. It's sickening, really.

And yet at the same time...it's beautiful. Because there is no set list, no agenda, no Google Maps driving directions telling him when to turn and where to merge, Watts is free to just...let what happens happen. And he does it all with just a loop machine, a keyboard, and a microphone. At one point he caters to the New York crowd, asking, "Is Brooklyn in the house?" What I love is that he doesn't ask with the frenzy-inducing gusto of most hype men (Is New York in the hooooouuuuse?!!!) but instead poses the question as if he were at a grocery store inquiring about the location of the olives (Oh...yes...excuse me...is Manhattan in the house?). It's these subtle, subtle changes and nuances about his performance that I really appreciate.

Of course, there's also the not-so-subtle approach as he morphs from persona to persona, one moment speaking in stereotypical thug-speak and in the next he's carrying on with the highbrow English accent of an Oxford professor. The personality shifts are wisely chosen, serving to add credence and believability to whatever it is he may be addressing in that particular moment.

One of my favorite moments is when Watts gives the crowd a phrase ("crab cakes") and then tells them that, when he says the phrase, everyone has to do a basic "laugh freeze" as if, while laughing out loud, they were turned into statues. The fun comes when Watts begins telling a story about a trip to Maine, going on and on and on, absolutely refusing to say "crab cakes." You can feel the anticipatory tension as the crowd waits for their cue. The more Watts strings them along, the more I (and the audience) laughed.

Yes, Watts's crowd work is great, his chatter is hilarious (like when he sets the record straight on silencers), but the music...oh, the beautiful, beautiful music.

Not only is Watts an accomplished musician but his talent as a singer is equally incredible. A couple of times he really lets loose, pouring his soul into it, and it drives the crowd wild. I admit I had goose bumps a few times and he really is an amazing talent to witness. With the help of his loop machine Watts is able to provide his own background vocals: bass, harmonies, falsetto runs...everything, and if he has a musical Achilles Heel, I didn't see it.

It's what Watts is singing that really provides the comedic teeth of his performance. He's got you tapping your feet to a smooth funky beat and then you realize he's recommending the movie Revenge of the Nerds or explaining why the band Oasis isn't as big as they used to be or why he's an idiot when it comes to remembering how chocolate works or revealing the embarrassing secret behind a dirty computer monitor or relaying why a good set of headphones just might make you love your favorite song even more than you already do. 

The final song is an ode to New York City and in my humble opinion it puts the overrated Jay-Z/Alicia Keys collaboration to shame. This is the song New Yorkers should lay claim to. And did I mention it's all improvised?

You can purchase this project in audio form or you can spring for the CD/DVD combo and I've gotta tell ya, the latter is definitely the way to go. You really don't want to miss anything. On the DVD you get to see Watts's physical nuances that heighten the laughter (i.e. his eye roll after he impersonates an eagle) and the concert is broken up by a series of interstitials that (sort of) explain how Watts found out he was performing in Central Park (Cen-TRALL pee-AIRK)

The audio version provides a much longer experience with songs not on the DVD and extended versions of the ones that are (which gave me a true appreciation for the DVD editors who seamlessly culled the best of the footage. I had no idea when I first watched that there had been any edits at all). There are moments on the CD that were cut out of the video -- most likely for time -- that really shouldn't be missed.

I went into this project already a fan of Watts and I walked away even moreso. The album will leave you with a smile on your face and -- at the risk of sounding too cheesy -- one in your heart. Convertibles and the PCH not necessarily required.


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