July 27, 2015

FTV: Weird Al

I like Weird Al Yankovic.  I like his parodies, his sense of humor, and his accordion playing.  He seems to be the kind of guy you could sit down and talk to.  With that said, I would really like to meet the guys in his band because they are able to take what Al does in the studio and recreate it on stage.  It is one thing to play your own style of music, but it takes a special group of musicians to play every conceivable style of music from polkas to hip hop and to do it with such panache!

The longest serving member of Weird Al’s band is his drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz who has been with Al since September 14, 1980.  That very specific date is important because Weird Al was scheduled to perform  his newest parody of Another One Bites the Dust live on the Dr. Demento (radio) Show.  While he was rehearsing Another One Rides the Bus, Schwartz introduced himself as a drummer and ended up keeping time on Weird Al’s accordion case during the song.  Who knew that thirty five years later they would still be together, albeit with Schwartz graduating from accordion case to a full drum kit.  He also does a great deal of the back up vocals in Al’s live show.

Schwartz has also served as the band’s historian and webmaster.  He began designing websites in 1995 and has turned it into a lucrative side business that keeps him occupied between tours.  He is also active in numerous other musical projects around his Los Angeles homebase.  Schwartz is known for his meticulous record keeping and the same meticulous streak is apparent in the way he fills the drum throne in Weird Al’s band.  There doesn’t seem to be a drum style that he can’t play.

The second longest tenured member of Weird Al’s band is bass player Stephen Jay who has been with Yankovic since the his debut album “Weird Al” Yankovic (March 1982).  Having studied composition and theory at USF in Tampa, Jay is a classically trained player who is also deeply interested in world music and African drumming.  We has spent time in West Africa studying with master drummers and incorporates a lot of world folk music in his own compositions, ranging from funk to jazz.  He is a highly respected bass player who is noted for his ability to play different meters at the same time.  This allows him to play both lead and rhythm parts at the same time.  If that sounds easy, try tapping your right index finger on the tabletop in a 4/4 time signature (1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4) while tapping your left index finger in ¾ time (1-2-3, 1-2-3).  Now imagine doing this while navigating up and down the fretboard of a bass guitar following a rhythm part and a melody at the same time.  It is no surprise that Jay is able to handle the variety of musical styles parodied by Yankovic.

Guitarist Jim ‘Kimo’ West also came on board with Yankovic’s 1982 debut album.  A Canadian, West was also schooled in Florida, migrated to Los Angeles before teaming up with Al’s band.  He is also a world traveler and  composer (for film and TV) whose hobbies include fishing, biking, scuba diving, snorkeling and whatever activities are suited for the places he visits.  He is particularly fond of Hong Kong and Hawaii.  His ‘Kimo’ handle comes from his other career as a slack key guitarist who has won numerous accolades for his skill in this specific type of Hawaiian music.  While all of the band members go through multiple wardrobe changes during a Weird Al show, West definitely looks the best in his Jedi Knight robes worn for The Saga Begins.

Last but not least is relative newcomer to the band is Ruben Valtierra who has been with the band since 1991.  A native of San Rafael , CA and a graduate of U.C. Santa Cruz, he led a popular jazz/funk fusion band called Rush Hour.  After relocating to Los Angeles, he soon found himself recording and traveling the world with groups as diverse as Aretha Franklin, Tower of Power, Tom Jones, Santana, Chick Corea, Elton John, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to name a few.  Soon after concluding world tours with Glenn Hughes (Trapeze, Deep Purple) and blues legend Charlie Musselwhite,  Valtierra began recording and touring with the Weird Al band.  Between tours, he is active in the studio as a writer and producer as well as the leader of his own Latin Orchestra.

These are not some studio musician hacks putting in their time.  Weird Al’s band is populated by four musicians who no doubt could be a formidable band even without their energetic front man.  Al is quick to credit Dr. Demento for his rise to stardom (he claims that if Dr. Demento hadn’t liked and aired his earliest cassettes, he very well may have had to pursue ‘real work’ after graduating from college with a degree in architecture), but his fortunes seemed to rise when he began working with Jay and West.  Weird Al is still the genius composer of masterful parodies, but Jay, West, Valtierra and Schwartz are the cogs that make Al’s music engine purr like a kitten.

Weird Al and his band are currently in the middle of their Mandatory Tour,  named of course for his current release Mandatory Fun.  As if playing flawless parodies isn’t tough enough, Al and the boys are opening the current tour with Al singing his vocal parts to Tacky while a film crew tracks him from the dressing room and through the catacombs of whatever venue they are playing in – live – while his trek is projected on the screen backdrop on stage.  The band soldiers on from the stage and Weird Al ends up at the back of the house before making his way to the stage just as the last chorus ends.  Ask most bands to try something like this and they would no doubt say, “That’s crazy!”  Nope.  That is Weird Al and his excellent band doing their thing.


A couple of notes about the YouTube video included.  1) I like the one from his Conan appearance, but it wouldn’t play nice for us – you can check it out on your own.  2) The one used is kind of unique because it features the entrance into an outdoor venue in broad daylight and 3) I just got my new buisness cards for the station – and yes Al, I used Comic Sans for the font!  ker