I haven't played any sort of musical instrument since I was forced to haltingly learn the rudiments of the recorder in like fourth grade, and I am resolutely, pathetically tone deaf--which means if you probably shoudn't ever invite me somewhere if you plan on having a jam session, or even if you're just planning on singing "Happy Birthday" to somebody you don't loathe. All the same, I ended up at Weezer's "Hootenanny" last night, at the Oaks Park Dance Pavilion of all places--an event that was more or less a combination between a secret show and what I imagine it felt like to be a marching band nerd in high school.
Elementary school is probably the better comparison, actually, as long as you imagine your favorite music teacher is Mr. Cuomo. 94.7 sponsored the show--one of a series of such hootenannies that Weezer's traveling around and putting on to mark the release of their latest album--and the basic idea is this: A local radio station invites like 200 people out, who are told to bring whatever instrument(s) they play, and, beforehand, to learn the basics of the songs that make up the setlist. In Portland's case: The 200 or so people were invited by 94.7, and they brought instruments that ranged from plastic kazoos to a drum that was the approximate size and shape of semi-truck's wheel. Also: trombones, guitars, trumpets, violins, cellos, tambourines, maracas, clarinets, those drums hippies like, tubas, and those egg-shaped shaker things that don't even really count as instruments. And then Weezer played six songs, and everybody played and sang and hummed along, and it was one of the most fun shows I've been to in a really long time.
Fact! Rivers Cuomo looks tiny and kind of shifty in person. Maybe it's that mustache, but more likely, it's that in a space as small as the pavilion at Oaks Park, and with only a few hundred people sitting cross-legged on the floor immediately around the band, what happens is what usually happens when you're in the immediate vicinity of somebody who, up until now, you've only seen on beloved album covers from your youth or in photos from Rolling Stone profiles: The figure in question look smaller than they should, and remarkably average, and it takes you a second to even recognize who they are. I guess in this instance, it helped that Cuomo was wearing a baseball cap with the Weezer "W" on it, and a Weezer windbreaker, and a Weezer t-shirt.
Speaking of that album cover, my somewhat tortured history w/ Weezer: The Blue Album is fuck, holy shit, Blue Album, right? Constant and continuous rotation in my room c. 1994-1997, all of it memorized with care. Pinkerton discovered later, being the album that, as anyone with half a wit about them will readily, quickly, and excitedly acknowledge as the band's apex. For the next couple of years, the band gave me what was to become my favorite conversation starter: "So whatever happened to Weezer?" And everyone would nod and agree and say how good Pinkerton was, and yeah, whatever did happen to Weezer, and this was an extraordinarily good and accurate test to use in determining if this girl named Mariah you were talking to at a house party near the University of Utah was worth continuing to talk to while your buddy Dave drank an entire bottle of vodka and then passed out on a purple inflatable chair, the squeaking noises made by the chair providing aural punctuation to the conversation about how fantastic "The World Has Turned and Left Me Here" is. And then, years later, an answer came to the question, nullifying my conversation-starting query: The Green Album, is no Pinkerton, true, but I will not talk shit about like everyone else does, because I'm pretty sure it's a perfectly fine summer album, bright and quick and poppy and fun and catchy, and then there's Maladroit, which I sort of remember halfheartedly listening to three or four times and then never listening to again, and then Make Believe, an album so terrible that it reminds me why illegally downloading music seems like such, such, such a legit option when the alternative is going into Everyday Music and spending $17 to learn that a band you once listened to on "repeat all" in your room is now, by all appearances, lazy and lousy and bland.
I haven't heard their new album yet, w/ the exception of the single "Pork and Beans," and I don't think I would have bothered with it, frankly, if it wasn't for the hootenanny last night, which was so genuinely great that it made me remember why I used to love the band so much in the first place.
On entering the pavilion, everyone gets a booklet autographed by Rivers Cuomo, Brian Bell, and Scott Shriner (Patrick Wilson, pulling a Greg Oden, isn't around thanks to a knee injury). Inside are lyrics to the setlist: "Pork and Beans," "Island in the Sun," Radiohead's "Creep," "Say It Ain't So," "El Scorcho," "Beverly Hills," and, in addition to the lyrics on these Xeroxed pages, there are hand-scrawled notes in the margins, written in some sort of bewildering and frightening foreign language: "In the key of F# minor (after tuning town 1/2 step)," says the one for "Island in the Sun," while "Creep" is annotated with "Chord progression: G major - B major - C major - C minor." I ignore this bizarre stuff, and contented myself with singing, because I know four of those six songs by heart. I probably should not admit how much I enjoy singing "Hip hip!" during "Island in the Sun." But fuck it: "Hip hip!" is fun to sing, and "Pork and Beans" is really fun to hum along to, and yes, "Beverly Hills" is a terrible fucking song, but it's still a great song to stomp your feet along to, provided, I guess, that it's Rivers Cuomo telling you to do the stomping, and there are 200 other people, aged 11 to 40, all around you, equally excited about doing the same thing.
"Just do that twice, and we're golden," Cuomo tells the nervous-looking girl playing clarinet as she preps for her solo for "Island in the Sun," and throughout, he acts not like a rock star but more like like a director/conductor/producer, telling everybody what to do and consulting with the sound engineer, who's backed up w/ all his equipment up against a wall, listening in: Mics are hung from the the ceiling, and one boom mike sits in the middle of the room, for soloists like Nervous Clarinet Girl, and Trumpet Kid, and Guy with Huge Casio Keyboard. Recording is in process, and we have to do "Pork and Beans" twice, and certain segments a couple of times--the audio to be broadcast on 94.7, we're told, along with on a CD assembled from these hootenanny sessions, one I assume/hope will be like that really solid The Lion and the Witch live EP that Weezer put out right after I moved to Portland. "The Phoenix people were singin' a lot louder," the engineer guy says at one point, egging everybody on. "I really like what you're doin'," Cuomo tells the percussion section, AKA the drum kids in the back, at least one of whom has some truly impressive headbanging hair. Three girls sit in front of me, maybe 11 or 12 or 13, and they keep holding up their hands and laughing and and doing that thing where you make a "W" shape w/ your thumb and forefingers, and they giggle and look at each other in nervous excitement after hearing everybody sing "the F-word" in "Creep." Everybody cheers after each of the songs, looking up to Cuomo and the engineer for approval, but the general sense of things, for the hour, hour and a half that it lasts, is that everybody's just having a really good time.
"I think these people now have a pretty good sense of what it's like to be in Weezer," Cuomo says as preparations are being made to start in on "El Scorcho," with Brian Bell telling everyone to sing "Death Cab" instead of "Green Day" in the lyrics. Cuomo's statement, is, of course, pretty full of shit; even in a totally low-key and chill environment like this, there's a clear separation between the people who are here because they are in the band and the people who are here to listen and gawk. Even though this feels more like a jam session than anything else, it's still a show, albeit one where, when you look out through the windows, you can see amusement park rides spinning and flashing just outside.
But it's something more, too, and I'm not sure what, but I like it. Once you get past the music, an essential part of any great concert is that fleeting thrill of sharing space and noise and purpose with artists you like. Yeah, no matter how great or involving a show, the audience is never really going to feel like the band does, or know anything what it's like to be in the band--but when everything's going right, and the lines start to blur a bit, they can get pretty close. That usually only lasts for a few, brief seconds--when there's a shared intent, or a mutual recognition--and then it's done. But last night, in some weird old building at Oaks Park, that feeling lasted a whole lot longer, with a couple of hundred people having a blast on a warm summer night, stomping their feet and humming and making music.
Photos courtesy of Minh Tran.