I went to see Jonathan Coulton and Paul & Storm at The Vic in Chicago with some friends. I asked my BFF Nick to share his experience as he could express it all far better than I. I hope you enjoy his thoughts!
Nick Sees Jonathan Coulton & Paul and Storm
Guest Post by Nick Kelley
Jonathan Coulton is a man who, like George R. R. Martin, operates on his own time. It’s been five years since the release of ‘Artificial Heart’ in 2011, which was also preceded by a different five-year hiatus. He pops up in the strangest places at the strangest times, contributing to NPR’s ‘Ask Me Another’ podcast or penning lyrics for the Spongebob musical that does, in fact, exist out there in the world of musical theater. In fact, during his June 18th performance at The Vic Theatre in Chicago, he took great pride in revealing that’d he’d written the opening number.
After years and years of devoted fandom, I was finally able to see Jonathan Coulton live in concert. My friend Kevin, who introduced me to Coulton’s work in the first place, got wind of the show, which is part of a small tour put together in honor of a forthcoming “concept album” titled ‘Solid State’ (Coulton, after referring to it as a concept album, immediately admonished himself for how pretentious a claim that was). Kevin, Myself, Jess, and Steph all got tickets and we met up outside the Vic.
Coulton’s frequent companions and beloved nerd bards in their own right Paul and Storm opened up the show. I had assumed they’d open with ‘Opening Band’, but while they did play that song, they opened with ‘Write like the Wind (George R. R. Martin).’ If you’re unfamiliar with Paul and Storm, I recommend checking them out — they’re extremely entertaining. They hit ‘Opening Band’ in the middle of their set and when they got to the line about no panties having been thrown, a pair sailed up to them from the crowd reading “Traveled from Cleveland” on the back. They then handed the pair to some kids as a souvenir and joked that they’d soon be arrested.
Paul & Storm played a few songs including their Frogger musical and an intensely funny nun boxing number delivered as a Roman-Catholic style Gregorian monk dirge. Their act was bookended by another Game of Thrones song to the tune of American Pie, which I had never heard before. It was amusing even though it dredged up all of the most painful deaths of that series, including a line about extra crispy Shireen that drew a depressed groan from the crowd.
Jonathan Coulton emerged from the darkness after a brief intermission, informing us as to who he was and that he’d be singing us some songs. He also remarked that if either of these two things were a surprise, something had gone terribly wrong. He then launched into ‘Artificial Heart,’ the title track from his last studio work.
From ‘Artificial Heart’ he transitioned seamlessly into my absolute favorite JoCo song, ‘Shop Vac.’ Shop Vac is one of a number of his songs that deal with a darker theme wrapped in a bit of humor (in this case, being trapped in a suburban loop and feeling unfulfilled to a point of snapping). The song takes on a somewhat different tone acoustically as it doesn’t contain the background news report clips of a man with a shotgun going on a rampage after having a nervous breakdown. Acoustically, the character just trudges through his mundane life unenthusiastically.
At one point in the song, he backed away from the mic and jammed out E and B7 chords on the guitar to which everyone applauded wildly. After the song he told us he held all the power because he could simply pretend he was doing something impressive and we would all eat it up. He did it again later and we applauded again, to which he smiled and said, “Suckers.”
Third in the set list was an old favorite, ‘Ikea.’ He led into the song with a story about being invited to play the song at the opening of a new Ikea store in Red Hook, NY. He recounted how he awkwardly asked them if they’d ever heard the song and how they’d had him start playing at 6:15 AM. Additionally, a clown on stilts was prowling the premises, and Coulton was being projected on a several-second delay on a jumbo screen that, for some reason, was pointed at the stage. He remarked that he could see chunks of his soul flying off. “But I kept the money,” he said.
Another of my favorite songs was next, though he was unsure how it would translate from electric guitar. ‘Glasses’ is a song about growing old with someone and being okay with that. Before beginning he reflected on a conversation he’d had with his best friend, and my own personal guru, John Hodgman about how the song is like driving down the freeway rocking out in a minivan. (Editor’s Note: I loudly fangirl woo’ed at the Hodgman mention, similar to how other ladies might woo for someone like Chris Evans…)
After playing Code Monkey, a song about feeling you could be more than you are, he brought up volunteers to read the spoken phone conversation in ‘The Princess who Saved Herself.’ The volunteers performed the lines fairly well, I suspect at least one of them was a theater nerd. Next up was ‘The Future Soon,’ which chronicles an ordinary story of a boy having a crush on a girl and being humiliated, as the world descends into a robot apocalypse and enters a new bionic paradigm of cybernetic terror.
We were then treated to two new songs off of ‘Solid State.’ The first, ‘Your Tattoo’ was a sweet sounding love song, though having heard it only once I’ve not dissected the subtext over and over again like I normally do with JoCo songs. The second new song ‘Brave’ was the origin story of a message board troll. Coulton had said the album will sort of focus on the evolution of this character as he perhaps finds redemption from his Internet persona. I’m extremely excited for ‘Solid State,’ which I’ll be able to get on vinyl, the first of JoCo’s works to be available in this infinitely superior medium. (Yeah yeah, hipster jokes, enjoy your crummy MP3s!) (Editor’s Note: NERD!)
Paul and Storm were called back out to lend their harmonious voices to a few songs, the first of which being ‘Always the Moon,’ which is one of my absolute favorite songs. In fact, I have a hard time listening to it without becoming somewhat emotional. I love sad songs, what can I say? What’s the point of art if you don’t allow yourself to enter the right state of mind and be moved?
From this they transitioned to a cover of They Might Be Giants’ ‘Birdhouse in Your Soul’ followed by ‘Space Doggity,’ the tale of Laika the cosmonaut space dog of Russia. Poor Laika. The song is gorgeous and the harmony was perfect. There’s something strangely empowering about the lyrics of that song. If you’ve never heard it, head to JoCo’s website and give it a listen.
Paul and Storm exited the stage, and Coulton performed two more classics ‘Mandelbrot Set’ and ‘Skullcrusher Mountain.’ It’s somewhat sad to hear ‘Mandelbrot Set’ nowadays since he’s died, and Coulton cuts out the part about him being still alive and teaching math at Yale. Oh, and of course he played ‘Still Alive,’ which Portal fans will recognize as the ballad of Glados’ resurrection.
The final song was of course ‘Re: Your Brains’ where we as the crowd played the part of a mindless horde of brain-eating zombies. If you don’t focus on the possible symbolism of that as an indicator of how JoCo sees us, it’s a fun song! (Editor’s Note: Hahahahaha.)
JoCo broke the fourth wall and told us how the encore would work. “I’ll pretend to leave, you’ll applaud, and after an appropriate time, I’ll come back out.” The illusion was shattered but we played along anyway. At least he came right back out, I’ve been to shows where the time between exiting the stage and the inevitable encore is preposterously long.
Joco and Paul and Storm reemerged and the show ended on ‘I Feel Fantastic,’ which is another of my favorites (though Kevin had to school me on one of the lyrics in the parking garage after the show as I sang it incorrectly). If you ever get the chance to see Jonathan Coulton perform live, I advise you to take it. Like I said, he lives on his own time, and the opportunity to see him doesn’t arise very often.
*Photo credit to Jonathan Coulton’s Facebook page.