text: Michael Raine | photography: Brian Patterson
Without hesitation or exaggeration, I can say I’ve never witnessed anything quite like Chilly Gonzales’ show at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto on Tuesday night.
The self-proclaimed music genius made a two-hour set – the latest installment of his Piano Talk Show series – feel like 20 minutes through the sheer power of his charisma, wit, and musical prowess, combining equal parts concert, music-theory lesson, and stand-up comedy. In essence, on stage, Chilly “Gonzo” (as he repeatedly called himself) is like an otherworldly cross between George Gershwin, George Carlin, and Eminem.
It all started conventionally enough. Gonzales entered stage left, dressed in his usual silk bathrobe and green slippers, to a hushed audience of retired couples and 20- and 30-something urbanites. He smiled, bowed, and immediately went into three unaccompanied instrumental piano tunes. His hair flailed as his fingers raced up and down the keys while remaining fluent. At one point in the third song, Gonzales pounded the piano with such force, he lifted himself off the piano bench on impact.
As impressive as these early displays of outstanding musical ability were, one was left wondering when the show would really begin. After all, when you read about Chilly Gonzales, much attention is given to how outrageously entertaining he is live. But once he pulled the microphone in to introduce the Fuck Luck Philharmonic Orchestra – actually three violinists and a cello player, “Fuck Luck” seems to be a name Gonzales gives to every group of musicians that accompany him – it was apparent that the Chilly Gonzales I’d read about had arrived.
For the next hour and 45 minutes he barely let up. In his typically arrogant-yet-comical way, Gonzales expounded on the lack of ambition in indie music: the various hip hop slang terms for money, his conscious decision to become a “hater” of fellow-Canadian Drake, how rap reflects culture, and why major chords are for fascists.
One of Gonzales’ most outstanding feats is his ability to rap while accompanying himself on the piano, sometimes with very complicated arrangements. Keenly aware that a 40-year-old, half-Jewish piano virtuoso could never be taken seriously as a conventional rap artist – despite being a talented wordsmith and rhymer – Gonzales keeps his lyrics overly boastful and irreverent, to the point that they’re comical. Even 40- and 50-something white guys who’ve never heard of Lil’ Wayne were in stitches as Gonzales rapped lines like “If you don’t like rap let’s face it/you probably hate this/you probably racist/we can debate if it’s tasteless/but I’m not a musical rapist.”
Gonzales didn’t just combine genres and styles to stunning effect; he combined songs. Enlisting the four members of the Fuck Luck Orchestra, he had the cello player play the bass line to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust, while the violinists took parts from songs such as Brittany Spear’s Toxic and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean while Gonzales rapped, played the piano, and conducted. Simply, it was mesmerizing.
Always the consummate showman, Gonzales regularly engaged the audience, bringing members on stage for lessons on improvisations and simplicity. Of course, he also took the opportunity to make jokes at their expense and (jokingly) yelled at one girl to “stop fucking giggling” while he taught her a bass line.
As well, apparently in the CBC’s bad book for standing on and laying in the piano the last time he played the Glenn Gould Studio, Gonzales made a show of reading his contract that specifically prohibited him from repeating the action. Walking up the aisle, reading lines from contract and adlibbing things like “extra-large rolling paper, non-negotiable,” he then announced that he was not prohibited from crowd surfing. Now, seeing a grown man in a bathrobe and slippers crowd surf across a theatre full of well-groomed retirees is an unusual sight, to say the least. But when the crowd sloppily returned him to his piano bench where he proceeded to play with his feet, it’s just plain impressive.
While the antics and the humor are what make the show so memorable, it’s the fact that Gonzales may well be the musical genius he claims to be that really adds impact. After all, many performers can play the piano, many tell jokes, many engage in witty banter, and many crowd surf, but very few combine all these elements with jaw-dropping musical ability and knowledge. They’re those seemingly contradictory notions – the wild and often lewd entertainer versus the intricate and ingenious piano master – that make Gonzales one of the most original and enthralling performers around.
I’ve never seen anything like Chilly Gonzales before that night and probably won’t again until I see him next.