The show is billed as Comedy for Musicians But Everyone Is Welcome, and you couldn’t find a more apt description of Fred Armisen’s performance Thursday night at sold-out First Avenue in Minneapolis.
He made fun of the D chord on guitar and the drumming at the beginning of Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.”
He goofed on jazz musicians who change the chords to even the most familiar songs and presented evidence with “Jingle Bells.”
And he showed how it didn’t matter which key you sang Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” because it’ll still sound pretty good.
Armisen, 52, demonstrated a history of punk-rock drumming, including ad-libbed tributes to the Twin Cities own Grant Hart (Husker Du), Chris Mars (Replacements), Todd Trainer (Rifle Sport) and Lori Barbero (Babes in Toyland), who was in the audience (Armisen recognized her voice and brought her onstage for a hug).
Covering everything from the Ramones in 1976 to the current Tame Impala, the history was equally nerdy and smart-alecky. And that’s Armisen in a nutshell -- nerdy and funny, with a dry delivery.
The “Saturday Night Live” and “Portlandia” comic has bona fide musical chops on guitar and drums. The current bandleader for “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” he reminisced about when his old band Trenchmouth gigged at the 7th Street Entry, and how Minneapolis – with its coffee shops, record labels and vinyl stores – was a model for “Portlandia.” Trenchmouth even recorded for a Minneapolis label, Skene.
And, yes, Armisen went to Paisley Park before Thursday’s gig. Surprisingly, he left his Purple references to a minimum at First Ave except for mentioning that the first time he was in Minneapolis, he had someone drive him to Chanhassen, look at the outside of Paisley Park and then drive him back downtown.
And, of course, Armisen accommodated a fan’s request for a taste of “The Prince Show,” a SNL bit in which Armisen portrays Prince as a talk show host with Beyonce (played by Maya Rudolph) as his sidekick. Armisen strummed the theme song on guitar and then led the crowd in a sing-long of “Raspberry Beret.”
Armisen’s 90-minute set – which included a middling 15-minute mid-set bit by Mary Lynn Rajskub of “24” fame while Armisen sat onstage – was long on observational humor, often as it related to music.
When he polled the audience to see how many guitarists or drummers were in attendance, the response was surprisingly strong. He certainly played to his crowd.
The comic didn’t reprise any of his impressions from his long SNL stint (2002-13) such as Barack Obama, Steve Jobs or Liberace. But did show off his mastery at mimicking accents.
He randomly called on a woman in the crowd who was from Houston. He then demonstrated a Houston accent, pointing out how it was different from an Austin and then a Dallas accent. Using a map of the United States, he then went around the country, doing accents from Arkansas, Tennessee, up the East Coast, through the Midwest and eventually to Seattle, southern California and, of course, Portland.
In Minnesota, Armisen even differentiated between Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Duluth accents with insight and accuracy – the same way he differentiated between our local rock drummers.
During the evening, Armisen sang parts of several songs, including covers (the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl,” Billy Idol’s “Dancing with Myself”) and tunes from his own comedic musical acts such as Test Pattern and Blue Jean Committee.
His penultimate tune, though, was serious: Husker Du’s “I’m Never Talking to You Again,” which he said was a tribute to Grant Hart.
On the whole, Armisen’s show felt like a tribute to Minnesota music and accents. And, with both, he was right on. You betcha.