If you don't know Jonathan Coulton's music, Judge Erich Asperschlager says it's time you got acquainted.
This was a triumph. I'm making a note here: Huge success.
It seems like all roads on the Internet lead to Jonathan Coulton. The computer programmer turned singer-songwriter first made a name for himself with his "Thing a Week" podcast series, where he wrote and recorded a new song every week for a year. Praised on message boards, passed around YouTube, and promoted on podcasts, Coulton's music attracted a massive fan base largely by word of mouth, without the backing of a big record label. He sells his music through his web site, eschewing DRM copy protection for Creative Commons licensing, streaming previews, and fan-transposed guitar tabs. Not only is Coulton a model independent musician, he understands Internet culture. His openness and interaction with fans has allowed him to thrive when major labels are struggling to adapt.
Coulton's relatively modest fame exploded in 2007 with the release of the video game Portal, for which he wrote "Still Alive"—a song from the perspective of the game's robot antagonist. Riding this wave of success, Coulton approached friend and director Adam Feinstein to film a February 2008 performance at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall. Fans old and new packed the venue—some armed with handheld video cameras at Coulton's request—for a legendary night of zombies, monkey/pony monsters, and tech bloggers playing plastic instruments. Finally, the rest of us can join in that JoCo live experience with the release of the aptly titled DVD/CD combo Jonathan Coulton: Best. Concert. Ever.
Facts of the Case
Clocking in at nearly two hours, Best. Concert. Ever. features acoustic renditions of Coulton's biggest hits mixed with behind-the-scenes interview footage. Here's the DVD set list (the CD track listing is nearly identical):
• The Future Soon
If you're new to Jonathan Coulton, you might assume that he's a novelty songwriter. After all, serious musicians don't usually sing about Swedish furniture superstores or higher mathematics. But, unlike most comedy musicians, Coulton's songs get more interesting the more you listen to them. He's funny and catchy as hell, but also smart (he is a Yale man after all). His comedy is more McSweeney's than Dr. Demento.
The JoCo fanbase is full of self-labeled "geeks" who feel a kinship with him. A song like "The Future Soon" might seem like the straightforward story of a kid daydreaming about being a famous scientist who solves (and creates) the world's problems, but it's actually a heartbreaking song about social awkwardness and teenage wish fulfillment. His breakthrough hit "Code Monkey" is about a software programmer who hates his job but stays because of a pretty receptionist who's way out of his league. Fan favorite "Skull Crusher Mountain" takes the theme of unrequited love to the secret lair of a mad scientist who just can't understand why the kidnapee he's trying to woo doesn't appreciate the half-pony half-monkey monster he's made for her ("You like monkeys/you like ponies/Maybe you don't like monsters so much/…Isn't it enough to know that I ruined a pony making a gift for you?").
All of Coulton's songs are clever, but not all of them are geek-related. "Mr. Fancy Pants," which boasts the best-edited sequence on the DVD, is about a "world's best pants" parade; "Creepy Doll" reads like a twisted Twilight Zone episode; "Tom Cruise Crazy" is an exaggerated take on the movie star that's probably not far off the mark; and "Talk With George" is the best (and only) song I've ever heard about the late great George Plimpton. One of my favorite Coulton songs, "Kenesaw Mountain Landis" purports to tell the story of the improbably named but very real Landis, who was the commissioner of baseball at the time of the 1919 "Black Sox" scandal. In Coulton's version, Landis is a 17-foot-tall, blimp ridin' folk-hero who faces off against the nasty Shoeless Joe Jackson—a wife-beating baby eater who recovers from the scandal to record the late-'70s hit "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" It's probably no accident that this bit of fake history would have felt right at home in friend and colleague John Hodgman's book of fake trivia, The Areas of My Expertise.
Many Jonathan Coulton fans haven't had the chance to see him in concert. Best. Concert. Ever. is a great way to experience his live show. The biggest difference between the recorded versions of his songs and their live counterparts is that rather than try to reproduce the original multi-track rock arrangements, on stage they're stripped down to the man and his guitar. In several cases, the acoustic renditions are better than the originals. "You Ruined Everything," a song he wrote for and about his baby daughter, is far more poignant without backing drums.
Coulton is joined onstage for several songs by fellow comedy musicians Paul and Storm, and ukulele player Kristen Shirts (who got to know Coulton after winning a "Code Monkey" remix contest). Paul and Storm are longtime fixtures in Coulton's stage show, and their backing harmonies take songs like "I Feel Fantastic" and JoCo's folk-rock cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" to new levels of awesomeness. Although she doesn't play with him as often, it's hard to imagine a Coulton concert without Shirts on uke. In Best. Concert. Ever. she backs him on "Tom Cruise Crazy," "Code Monkey," "Still Alive," and (along with Paul and Storm) an inspired rendition of "Creepy Doll" complete with bucket of dry ice fog.
The most interesting non-musical thing about Best. Concert. Ever. is how big a part of the show the audience is. There's a real sense of joy and camaraderie in the crowd. Coulton fans are real fanatics. They dress in costumes, bring homemade replicas of things from his songs, and talk back during the show. If it seems weird that so many people are dressed as zombies, it all makes sense when Coulton gets to "Re: Your Brains," a song from the perspective of an undead businessman who treats talking a survivor into letting him eat his brains like it's a corporate negotiation ("All we want to do is eat your brains/We're not unreasonable, I mean, no one's gonna eat your eyes"). It's a phenomenal song—and that's coming from someone who's sick to death of the current zombie fad.
For this show, Coulton involved fans even more directly by recruiting some of them to shoot video from the crowd. Though there's a definite difference in quality between the professional and fan footage, there are some great shots of audience members singing along and sharing tender moments with each other. That the footage is fan-filmed makes the reaction shots more authentic.
For further proof that Jonathan Coulton fans are the best, watch the sequence near the end of the concert when he invites fellow podcasters Leo Laporte (of This Week in Tech), Veronica Belmont (of Mahalo Daily) and Merlin Mann (of the hilarious You Look Nice Today) to join him onstage. The quartet strap on plastic instruments and play a version of "Still Alive" in the video game Rock Band. Their performance is pretty terrible, except for Belmont who has to save the group from failing out several times. What could have been a train wreck becomes an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride because the audience has so much fun watching their hero teeter on the edge of failure. I won't spoil the final result, but it's a lot more enjoyable than watching other people play video games ought to be.
Best Concert. Ever. is a blast in both its DVD and CD forms. The audio-only version is missing the inter-song banter, but even at a trim hour and ten or so minutes, the edited show pushes the limits of what fits on a CD. The DVD video presentation isn't the slickest, but it perfectly captures the spirit of Coulton's live show. The only possible disappointment for audiophiles is that the DVD sound is stereo and not in 5.1 surround, but when the content is this cool, it's hard to complain.
As if a nearly two-hour concert in both video and audio form wasn't enough, Best. Concert. Ever. has a nice bunch of extras, including the Coulton-Shirts version of "Still Alive" that appears on the CD, and 21 minutes of raw fan footage from before and after the show. It also has the YouTube hit "Code Monkey" dance video. I'm not usually much for fan-made web cam videos, but JoCo fan Emily Mark's interpretation of the song is surprisingly cool. Little wonder it inspired other fans to record videos of themselves doing the dance. Concert includes an edited collection of those videos as well.
The main bonus feature attraction, though, is a full-length commentary recorded by Coulton, Paul and Storm, and Shirts. It's a lot of fun listening to the friends sit around eating pizza, talking shop, and ribbing each other. The only problem with the commentary—and this is my only real complaint about the set—is that because they just set up microphones in Coulton's apartment instead of going to a professional studio, the mix is sometimes too muddled to be clearly heard. It's not a dealbreaker (you can figure out what's being said if you pay close attention), but it is a little disappointing.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A note for new fans and parents: Just because the goofy subject matter makes these songs sound family-friendly doesn't mean all of them are. None of Coulton's swearing is gratuitous, but "Kenesaw Mountain Landis" does begin by calling him "a bad motherf&%#er." And hilarious and catchy as it is, those with delicate sensibilities might want to skip "First of May" (here's a taste: "First of May/first of May/outdoor f&%#ing starts today/so bring your favorite lady/or at least your favorite lay").
I wrote way more about Best. Concert. Ever. than I intended to, but I have two very good reasons: 1) This concert DVD rocks, and 2) Jonathan Coulton deserves to be way more famous than he is. If you count yourself among Coulton's rabid fan base, buy this set and share it with your friends. If you've never heard of him before, this concert is a great place to start. There are a lot of awful things on the Internet. Jonathan Coulton's music is not one of them.
Definitely. Not. Guilty.
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