Show Review: Chilly Gonzales: “The Piano Talk Show” at Hotel Utah Saloon, 4/7/12

by Dakin Hardwick on April 9, 2012

Chilly Gonzales is not a household name in the USA, yet he is a very accomplished and successful musician. In America, his two most famous pieces of work are connected to Apple commercials, where his identity is entirely concealed. It puts him in a interesting place where he essentially has the freedom to do as he wishes, while still making a living as a musician. Thus bringing him to the tiny SOMA bar, Hotel Utah Saloon, doing a one man show on a Saturday night.

The doors were scheduled to open at 7, although there was a bit of a delay with entry. So, there was a small group of folks that were waiting in the bar for them to open the performance area. I thought we were in a group of patient, well mannered people, and it seemed that way for the bulk of our wait. Then they opened the doors to the performance room, and people practically mobbed the door. It felt more like Justin Timberlake was about to play a club gig, not a solo piano performance by a record producer. The pure chaos settled quickly, although every slot in the small room was filled within moments. Very few people managed to stay with their social group, because, well, there was no way to move around, and everyone was simply pushing to get where the wanted to be. This was fine, however, because within five minutes of the doors opening, Gonzales hit the stage.

The beginning of the set was pure solo piano. He smiled, said hello, and then hit the ground running. He played three solo piano pieces with no vocals. He didn’t need to do anything but play. His style moved between 20th century classical experimentation to melodic, populist, Gershwin inspired melodies. He pounded the keys with an amazing amount of force, putting his entire body into his playing. His style is very percussive, and makes for a very dynamic stage performance, which is not something you commonly hear about with a pianist.

After three pieces, he moved to the “Talk” portion of this show. With this, he moved from being an intense, almost frightening musician to become a calm, personable, and funny host. He riffed on the venue, which brought him to both American politics and “dive-y” element of the venue. He riffed on the social implications of music in a major or minor scale. Not only is this man a musical genius, he is also an excellent stand up comedian. Each joke hit hard, and even when he would discuss the most obscure musical terms, his delivery was dry and punchy that it was impossible not to laugh. His major/minor key bit evolved into transposing classic melodies from major into minor keys, turning famous songs like “Happy Birthday” and “Frere Jacques” in to moody, intense pieces.

Gonzales has released several hip hop records, and he would be hard pressed to avoid this side of him. So, he managed to incorporate this quite nicely, either doing it a capella, or, literally, rapping while playing piano. This helped bridge the two sides of his performance, and, well, it takes a lot of guts to even attempt accompanying oneself while rapping. His mic skills are amazing; he has an excellent gift for both wordplay and rhyming, and if his great knowledge of music theory didn’t prove that he was a nerd, his song that analyzed slang terms for money sealed the deal.

The audience was a great influence on his set, too. He would randomly ask for requests, and those requests ranged from the expected, to the random. Somebody called out a Jose Gonzales song, causing Chilly to refer to the guy as a “Swedish Wimp.” (Not gonna argue that one.) When somebody asked for a Queen song, he did a solo piano medley of nearly a dozen pop songs ranging from Billy Joel to Rick James, avoiding Queen in every way shape or form. He even brought a stranger in stage, showed him a bass riff on the piano, and rapped over bongos while the stranger played along. (The audience member was killer)

He ended up doing a full two hours of humor and piano, in a room that was so crowded that it bordered on uncomfortable. It should have been torturous, but instead, it was solid, and went by far too quickly. The two hour set felt like 20 minutes, and he could have easily stayed on stage for another hour without losing the rapt audience.

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