comScore

The Pizza Underground at First Avenue, 11/1/14

Pizza Underground did not allow professional photography at First Avenue.

Pizza Underground did not allow professional photography at First Avenue.

The Pizza Underground
with Ripper, Toby Goodshank, and Har Mar Superstar
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, November 1, 2014

"DO YOU GUYS LIKE PIZZA?!"

This was the obnoxious, self-answering question that began the Pizza Underground's set last Saturday at First Ave. It was posed by a camcorder-wielding man dressed as Andy Warhol, and it was of course answered with a series of whoops from the crowd. Everyone likes pizza, but not everyone likes the Pizza Underground.

You need a voracious appetite for irony to appreciate a live performance from Macaulay Culkin's 'za-obsessed Velvet Underground cover band -- their delirious vaudeville variety show is a trippy, infectious blend of New York uber-chic and schoolyard mockery -- to the point where you can't reasonably be sure it's a joke anymore. Trying to understand the whole circus is an exercise in futility. If one thing was clear, it was that the Pizza Underground are antagonists of folks who value good sense.

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One of these folks was an earplugged old man in the crowd. He stood in his 1980s-era Tommy Hilfiger jacket and thrust his middle finger firmly toward the Warhol impostor. At this point in the show, it was easy to be on his side.

Still, as the band filed on stage to "Papa John Says," the crowd, who were definitely there for the Pizza Underground, despite the fact that Minnesota product Har Mar Superstar was the rightful headliner, erupted. Minutes before, they had been chanting "Pizza!" -- their cultish chorus hammering my fevered mind into madness. Macaulay Culkin was the last to take the stage, a tease that paid off in a rain of applause. Then something happened.

As the song fluttered on, all five voices joined miraculously, syncing to the point where the source of the sound was indiscernible. Visions of spinning pepperoni pies on the back screen were hypnotic.

The troupe gyrated like an enchanted '60s family band with guitars, shekeres, glockenspiel, tambourine, and pink Pizza Luce box bass drum. Then the group tapered from the opener into the first of several Velvet Underground cover medleys.

"DO YOU GUYS LIKE PIZZA?!"

This time it was Culkin himself with the question, and his asking elicited an even louder response. There was of course another middle finger, this time from a stubby dad who tucked his T-shirt into his jeans. With that, the band floated four boxes of Pizza Luce pies. There was something cutely messianic about trusting that only four large pies could feed a sold-out crowd. Below all the joking, there was something communal at work after all.

Going into the show, it seemed unlikely that a pizza-themed Velvet Underground band fronted by a former child actor could keep up the joke for 50 minutes. Truthfully, it nearly didn't, which was painfully obvious at some point between "I'm Beginning to Eat the Slice" and "I'm Waiting for Delivery Man." The euphoria was wearing off.

"Why is a pizza delivery guy like a gynecologist?" Phoebe Kreutz asked in a mercilessly fake German accent. "They can smell it, but they cannot taste." This drummed up the first legitimate bout of laughter from the audience, who weren't expecting such traditional humor.

Soon after, Matt Colbourn took center stage to change the pace a bit. Working a capella, he debuted the band's cat-themed Billy Joel side project, Pussy Joel, singing a verse from a reworked "Movin' Out." The gag was cheeky, though not nearly as sacrilegious as the Pizza Underground themselves, which made for poor therapy.

For their next loogie in the eye of rock history, they had a man they claimed was Kurt Cobain come out to sing a mix of Nirvana songs sung in the past tense (such as "Come As You Were" and "Smelled Like Teen Spirit"). This episode was more satisfying, mostly because the joke is so simple. Culkin kinda has a thing for fuckin' with Cobain fans. It stirred memories of Ginsberg's chucking potato salad at CCNY lecturers for the pure joy of the absurdity.

Then, Vollmer took the stage with a beatific new song, which she sang spotlighted. "Close the Box" was a loving ode to keeping pizza warm by not leaving the box open on the counter. It was sublimely silly, and Vollmer's innocuous sprite of a voice charmed.

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The Pizza Underground regrouped and kicked into another series of medleys; it was indeterminable when one song ended and another began. "Pizza Day" appeared for a chorus and dematerialized into the blissful ether as Culkin exhaled through a kazoo shaped like a French horn. At some point. Toby Goodshank appeared in a Ziggy Stardust mask, though it was so ludicrous I could've sworn it was a hallucination. This was the peak energy surge, and they parlayed that jolt into a cameo by Candy Boys.

Candy Boys burst onto the stage with fratboy wherewithal, pumping 808 party anthems as they tossed pixie sticks into the crowd. They wore neon halter tops and stomped an incongruous, yet absorbing interlude in the set.

As the sugar injection -- which Culkin joked was "dessert" -- faded, the Pizza Underground came back for "Pizza Gal," which got a huge reaction from the crowd, one that the band, who likely haven't played a room this big all tour, relished in. In the song's ending crescendo, Culkin rapturously threw a shekera into the crowd, grinning like Timothy Leary after a meal of acid.

Next, he went to the mic to make a special announcement. It turns out that a huge fan of the Pizza Underground named Connor was in the crowd. Connor had been to "like a million" of their shows, and as a favor for his commitment to their anti-folk prank-a-thon, they invited him on stage to sing along with "Pizza Rolls" -- a song he actually didn't know. But, like the rest of crowd, Connor caught on quickly to the sing-song gang vocals.

The fitting end was an almost elegiac "Take a Bite of the Wild Slice," a song that urges folks to step out of their comfort zones in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible.

By treating their cheeky piss-taking with nothing but irreverence and earnestness, the Pizza Underground have pissed off legions of critics, but these outsiders are necessary to keeping the gag going. This band is about the conversion. As Kreutz said in her Nico-mocking voice, "We do this for the bewildered looks on peoples' faces." If everyone was in on the joke, it'd be the worst joke in the music industry. Instead, they're keeping their slices warm.

Critic's Notebook:

Critic's Bias: My brain was cooking in my head during this show, so there's a chance none of this happened at all. Also, there are no synonyms for pizza. I get the joke about the Pizza Underground. At least I think I do. But I was in a bad way Saturday night. I arrived to First Ave with a 101-degree fever and a dramatic sense of dread. By the time Ripper and Toby Goodshank had finished their sets, my joints ached and there were puddles of sweat on the backs of my thighs. I was in no mood for irony.

The show was almost certainly placebo, but there was something undeniably medicinal about it. I awoke the next morning damp and still reeling from the fever, but as I stuffed capsules of vitamins in my maw, I wished I'd had a greasy slice of cheese instead.

The Crowd:
About 40 percent of the folks in attendance were in costume and blearily drunk, which is the sort of weirdness you sign up for when you see Macaulay Culkin's pizza band the day after Halloween.

Overheard in the Crowd: A woman yelling at someone for bumping into her: "Yeah, we're all just trying to get by."

Random Detail: In the middle of writing this review, I bought a pizza.

Setlist:

Papa John Says
Pizza Underground medley
Pussy Joel interlude
Past-tense Kurt Cobain interlude
Close the Box (Deenah Vollmer solo)
More Pizza Underground medley
Candy Boys interlude
Pizza Gal
Pizza Rolls (with superfan Connor)
Take a Bite of the Wild Slice

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