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As is sometimes his wont, Reggie Watts opened his New York show on Wednesday night with a long, faux-misinformed riff on the history of the venue hosting him. Referring to Irving Plaza as Irvine Plaza, he spoke with mock reverence of artists who’d graced its stage — and a few, including Michael Jackson, he thought had probably at least been near the building once or twice.
Announcing in his ersatz English accent that he’d be previewing “about 70 percent” of the songs on a forthcoming album (release date TBA), he began with a tune addressing a question that haunts New Yorkers: What time is brunch? Working an array of loop and effects boxes to build his own backing tracks live, he wound up in a mode that, subject matter aside, could almost have been mistaken for straight hip-hop. Perhaps, by not investing much imagination in the beat, he was looking beyond the new song to its inevitable spinoffs — original songs are never good enough, Watts argued, and should be remixed, then remixed again, in iterations that continue until the tweaks collapse upon themselves and the song reverts to its original state.
That may have been a joke at the expense of dance music producers, but it’s not a bad metaphor for Watts’s improvisational style, which is so reliant on tangents and misdirection that it’s hard to know if what listeners heard here bears any resemblance to songs that will grace the follow-up to his last studio CD, Why $#!+ So Crazy? Nothing on the set list approached the earworm-y catchiness of his dumb-rap parody “F— S— Stack,” and few of the songs themselves were anywhere near as funny.
Instead the set benefited from performative gags, like a little-girl singing voice on one song that suddenly turned threateningly demonic. Elsewhere, Watts sang about Iceland, Greece and global money-market chaos in a voice recalling the Digital Underground’s Humpty Hump. He mocked cliches, mimicking the beat-mixing indulgence of a heroic EDM DJ and miming his way through an air-guitar bass solo that would have been insufferable if he’d actually been making any sound do go with the motions.
His most effective jabs, though, were aimed at himself. Alone on stage, he sat at his keyboard in mock seriousness at one point, attempting to write a profound song in front of us and hardly getting beyond a couple of words: “we should –,” “where will –,” “how could –?” No spiritual revelations were forthcoming, to the amusement of an audience steeped in hipster irony. Back at the mike stand, Watts made the most of his singular physical presence. Wearing a cheesy sweater adorned with a black Santa Claus, portly and sporting a wild, nimbus-like afro, he’s an unlikely sex symbol, but that didn’t stop him from stroking the microphone suggestively and writhing like a diva, cooing through another of the evening’s unnamed songs. The ditty’s lyrics, some unprintable musings about defecation, could hardly have made things stranger. A performance for the annals of Irvine Plaza, to be sure.
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