Andrew W.K. & the Calder Quartet
By Chris Molnar | 25 January 2012
Classical music needs Andrew W.K. the same way he needs classical music. Which is to say that both seem like they’re slumming at the moment, but both have and will continue to secretly—or not so secretly—benefit from the association. Greasy frat anthems like “Party Hard” or “I Love NYC” shine under simple, clean arrangements, and “4’33“” seems less pedantic or academic when viewed through the lens of what amounts to a classically trained stand-up comedian. W.K.‘s lack of overwhelming (though generally satisfying) success as party popster, metal balladeer, solo pianist, television personality, motivational speaker, and nightclub owner has rightly left the focus on Andrew W.K.: the idea of a relentlessly positive rocker. It’s a caricature played so straightly and smartly he only truly belongs in the overwhelming, hall-of-mirrors company of Groucho Marx. Or Rick Ross.
In that sense, the vast subterranean dungeon of Le Poisson Rouge played host to some very good chamber music used as the setup to an almost-cheesy populist punchline. W.K.‘s multi-year excursion into pop classical has become a way to show off all of his myriad talents, a “show” in the sense of classic vaudeville, complete with physical comedy, original and traditional music, one-liners, and a script of sorts involving the Calder Quartet as straight men and Andrew W.K. as all-purpose foil.
The quartet’s opening salvo of Terry Riley was a terrific palliative, the intensity and repetition perfect for party-hardy indie kids prepared for an ironic night out. Mirroring W.K.‘s own intense, repetitious “hits,” it acted as a legitimate recital, a counterpoint of sorts, and an inescapable build-up.
When W.K. finally took the stage in his all white costume, he milked his comic timing, piano chops, and limited oeuvre to surprising effect. Playing without sheet music, he literally threw himself into a solo Bach piece, starting and stopping dramatically as if he couldn’t quite remember how it went. But his technique was impeccable, and by the time the show progressed to his own work he had established a sort of rhythm, alternating Liberace-type flamboyance with quiet intensity. The Calder Quartet’s facial reactions to his rehearsed erraticism—thanking them profusely; long pauses and bursts of faux-metal exuberance—were delightfully varied, from amused to awed to stoic. They have developed a history with W.K. over the past few years, and their experience as tourmates shows.
Their nuanced take on his energetic pop-metal tunes imbues them with a wistfulness that seems all too appropriate over a decade after they were released. “I Get Wet” sounds more hopeful than boastful, the smarm dialed down all the way, the sentiment almost vulnerable. Even with the tinny drum machine propelling “I Love NYC,” W.K.‘s token efforts to get out the metal gesticulations from the aging-hipster to actual-old-person-aged crowd were effective enough to still seem sort of awesome, not just kind of sad.
All this to say, he has a strong enough persona to own any career juncture he might find himself in. Maybe I’m getting old, but I’m glad that the giants of my youth can age gracefully into the classical-and-(hopefully)-Christmas-album eras of their musical journeys. I doubt we’re going to see Skrillex get this versatile, let alone with the kind of musical ability that let W.K. call the author of his encore “Johnny Cage” and make it sound more familiar than irreverent. His pop music career may have caught the fading end of mainstream music as a powerful farm system—and not just a YouTube endgame—but Andrew W.K.‘s durability as an entertainer astounds.