Review of concert from 2001-06-04: with Spinal Tap; Carnegie Hall, NYC; special guest at Spinal Tap concert
NY Times, 2001-06-05
- Neil Strauss


June 6, 2001

ny_times.010606_small.gif (5190 bytes)
This is . . . Christopher Guest, left, and Michael McKean on Monday night at Carnegie Hall during the ninth annual Toyota Comedy Festival.

Spinal Tap Still Walks a 'Fine Line Between Stupid and Clever'


These days, with pop groups like Eden's Crush and O-Town it's hard to tell which came first, the television show or the band. But back in 1984, when Rob Reiner made his directorial debut with the rock mockumentary "This Is Spinal Tap," little did its comic stars — Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean — suspect that 17 years later they'd still be donning long wigs (and fake cold sores, in Mr. Guest's case) and performing as Spinal Tap. But Spinal Tap, which began its life as a parody of a dinosaur rock band, has become a real-life dinosaur rock band, and in its Carnegie Hall debut on Monday night, it dragged out the old hits for the faithful.

The concert was the headline show of the ninth annual Toyota Comedy Festival, which features some 200 comedians performing in clubs around Manhattan this week. It was odd that at Spinal Tap's gig, there was little to no laughter in the audience. The members of Spinal Tap played it completely straight, with very little witty banter between songs, no exploding drummers and only one prop (a minuscule Stonehenge replica wheeled onstage hanging from a clothes rack). There have been more laughs and misfired spectacles on 'N Sync's stadium tour.

Legitimizing its music, Spinal Tap had credible musical guests joining the band. Randy and Michael Brecker Brothers, Paul Shaffer and Hiram Bullock appeared as backing musicians on a few songs and, most impressive, Elvis Costello outshined the Tap on its own song "Gimme Some Money," credited to a spurious mid-60's incarnation of the band, the Thamesmen.

The show was part of its six-date Back from the Dead tour, and it included favorites like "Hell Hole," "Big Bottom," "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight" and the band's supposed first hit, "(Listen to) the Flower People." It made you wonder whether comedians, like Kiss and other rock bands, are going to present reprises of old shows — if Eddie Murphy, for example, will tour successfully with a mid-80's show.

Though the power of a joke comes from its freshness and element of surprise, to some degree people are nesters. They like to settle into a routine and surround themselves with their favorite things, and there is an appetite for seeing a favorite comedy bit over and over. The appeal of the Spinal Tap show wasn't in the music itself (though the actors all had musical chops, as dinosaur rockers one would wish them retirement) or the comedy (reduced to just a few wisecracks from Mr. Shearer), but in the chance to see much-loved movie characters performing classic bits in the flesh. In some ways the band was upstaged by the opening act: itself. To start the show, Mr. Shearer, Mr. Guest and Mr. McKean came out in red-striped button-down shirts and fake bald pates to perform as the Folksmen, another spurious band, this one a survivor of the 60's Greenwich Village folk scene. In these acoustic songs was a reprise of a fresher concept: a slow-rolling version of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" and a heavily veiled double-entendre about a mining disaster, "Blood on the Coal."

The Toyota Comedy Festival continues through Saturday. Although there are plenty of high-profile shows, including a Mystery Science Theater 3000 reunion, the Smothers Brothers, Dave Chappelle and a roast of Richard Belzer by the Friars Club, there is also a lot of good alternative comedy to see, much of it by talented local comedians.

Shows worth seeing at Performance Space 122 (888-338-6968 or will be by Marc Maron (tomorrow and Saturday), Hugh Fink (Friday), Todd Barry (Friday and Saturday) and Louis C. K. (on Saturday). Greg Fitzsimmons is to be at Stand Up New York on Friday and Saturday and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater is playing host to shows dedicated to pranks, which began hilariously on Saturday with Matt Besser's recordings he made when users of a free Internet service started dialing his phone number, thinking that it was a technical support line.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company