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Review: An Evening with Chilly Gonzales, Musical Genius

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Live music tends to divide into two camps. There are those artists who rest heavily upon their music, barely speaking between songs as they plow through the set list as if they had a crate of beer chilling in the wings (which, in many cases, they probably do). Or there are those who are natural born raconteurs, peppering the music with anecdotes, background to the songs, and even the occasional personal confession.

Anyone who was at Seattle’s Triple Door on Tuesday April 10, 2012, will tell you that Chilly Gonzales falls firmly within the second camp. The Triple Door is better suited to charismatic performers anyway – due in part to the close-up, club-like ambiance – but it was as if Gonzales had taken the traditional club singer role and re-imagined it as a bathrobe-wearing, disheveled, piano-hammering, rapping Canadian Jew. The word ‘unique’ truly doesn’t do justice to Gonzo’s Piano Talk Show.

Fortunately Gonzales himself was on hand to offer an alternative term: ‘musical genius’. He was keen to point out that this wasn’t arrogance, he was simply going with the general consensus… and if that tongue-in-cheek boast seems too much to swallow then you’ll probably want to look away now. Gonzo is a true oddity in the music world, a producer who frequently works with household names but is barely known himself, a piano virtuoso who is just at home tinkling away at delicate pseudo-classical compositions as he is rapping to discordant key-hammering. It’s a measure of his talent that the oddball raps are just as entertaining as the complex piano pieces – even his bongo skills show a frenetic energy that can barely be contained.

If you’re not familiar with Gonzo’s musical output then I’d suggest that you get your hands on copies of Ivory Tower and Solo Piano, but the live experience is something else entirely. Gonzales is a true showman, and a talented enough musician to be able to go with the flow, accommodating requests and bizarre asides with ease. His minor key versions of ‘Happy Birthday To You’ and Vangelis’s theme from Chariots of Fire are as note-perfect as they are refreshing, and even when he asks audience members on stage to play the piano parts – something that happens three times during the course of the evening – he has the confidence and the charm to gloss over their inevitable awkwardness. When he plays ‘Gogol’ from beneath the piano, his hands fluttering over the keys while his head hangs down below, you can almost hear the audience gasp in awe.

When the Triple Door’s house lights come up and the empty glasses have been cleared away, however, the abiding memory is of Gonzo’s eccentric charm – the kind of charm that can make a bathrobe and slippers seem the most natural outfit to wear to a crowded auditorium, or play ‘Hotel California’ with such ironic invention that it becomes an entirely different song. ‘The Grudge’ may be Gonzo’s most fully-realized rap song of the evening, but somehow it’s hard to imagine anyone bearing ill will towards this loudmouthed musical genius. And for once even the genius tag may not be strong enough.

Check out Gonzo’s bongo rap from the Seattle show below – and be certain to stick around for the drum solo at the end…