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“I love playing on Sunday,” gibes Canadian sonic polymath Chilly Gonzales. “You’ve already taken all of your drugs, so I have you right where I want you: almost sober.” The audience titters, even though he is selling them a little short. For once, the posters dotted around a dingy venue urging gig goers to be quiet for a performance are unnecessary as the opening piano solo escaping from his fingers is intense enough to hush even the booziest of industry types. He pogos on his seat to create a percussive bassline, an electric shock of hair flopping maniacally over his forehead as he pounds the keys, giving him the air of a perma-hungover ivory-tinkler at a Weimar-era speakeasy. He defies you to drunkenly natter in your friend’s ear; he says, albeit without words: shut the fuck up.
The producer and composer – back with added hot sauce to his once singular name – is not the kind of man to mess with, should you want to talk your entire way through an intimate gig. Even if he is wearing a plaid dressing gown and, we imagine (but can’t see), slippers. But it’s not that he might rise from his battered Ol’ Joanna, launch himself into the crowd and thump you one; it’s that he’ll melt your face with his acid-tongued and completely endearing wit. At emotive dubstepper James Blake’s show two days earlier – part of the same brand-endorsed ‘new music’ (arf) series of gigs as this – the atmosphere was claustrophobic, with the constant pathetic cry of “We love you James” from the audience much to the mumbling young star’s embarrassment. Here, on the other hand, there is only endless laughter and rapturous applause as Gonzales’ followers hang on to his every shotgun rhyming couplet.
That’s because tonight is one of Berlin-based Gonzo’s ‘Piano Talk Shows’, a part gig and part cabaret performance. Like the name suggests, there’s music and there’s talk, of which Gonzo is very good at doing, littering his set with smart anecdotes about why he should be a lot more famous than he actually is. It’s likely that it’s part of the loose satirical role he is playing with his cabaret hat on: he is the downtrodden club performer, with a bone to pick with The Music Industry Man.
Unfortunately, it’s an odd choice of venue for such an act. When Gonzo first brought this format to the UK, it was at decadent West End supperclub The Pigalle Club, where folks like Erol Alkan and The Mighty Boosh sat guffawing around cocktail-laden tables. At the Borderline, however, it feels less polished: there is no big screen to display his dexterous finger acrobatics and certainly no £10 Bellinis. Instead, it’s cabaret for the mosh-pit, with a sold-out pack of fans snapping at his feet.
Despite a relatively short performance, he is effortlessly captivating – especially when he’s rapping. It’s a surreal combination – orchestral rap, that is – to see live; a jarring contrast between a raw folk-driven instrument and hip hop swagger with punchy rows of rapping. But it makes sense when Gonzales explains, “I try to be a man of my time, that’s why I bother rapping,” before launching into a story about Rihanna collaborator and fellow rapper Drake.
Drake, he claims, shamelessly traced over one of his songs (‘The Tourist’) for a mixtape (So Far Gone) and how he (Chilly) ended up playing piano to him (Drake) at Chilly’s father’s apartment block after it transpired that the rapper lived in the same building. A confusing story to relay, but, after all, no one can tell them quite like Chilly. Could he be making a not-so-subtle comment on the commercial interpretation of hip hop so popular these days? Possibly.
He showcases a new rap inspired by this bizarre meeting and shows just how well he knows how to work a rhyme when he lines up “famous”, “nameless” and “fuck you in the anus”. Like his feline counterpart Peaches, his lyrics are sharp, clever and, above all, grotty. But most importantly, they are directed at you, mocking you, questioning you, berating you; his larger-than-life face is in your face, not hung low and facing the piano keys, singing only to them. If ever you weren’t sure how Chilly Gonzales feels about, Drake, you sure as hell do now.
But the show isn’t about vocoderific rappers: it’s about Gonzo. Predictably, the first single from last year’s Ivory Tower, ‘Never Stop’, gets the most cheers – by now, even your Mad Aunt Doris has heard it on the new iPad advert. In a clever twist, he showcases the song on an iPad, purposefully showing how simple its three-note melody is: “People need to know that Chilly Gonzales is the iPad,” he mocks, taking a swipe at his own motivations. Unfortunately, technical issues hamper this particular skit, which puts a dent in the performance’s veneer, but in the interim he fires up a dramatic rendition of perhaps his most well-known plinky-plonky song, ‘Take Me To Broadway,’ flitting between excerpts from Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ and The Sufaris’s surf-rock noodle ‘Wipe Out’ to comic effect.
The show’s closing song is Gonzo’s piéce de resistance. Often one to pull musical novices onstage to play with him, as he did at his last Piano Tallk Show at Bloomsbury Ballroom in London, this time he has planted a drummer (Joe Flory aka Primary 1) and a gaggle of smiley Supremes-styled backing singers, some dancing like mums in a rollerdisco. They join him for new single ‘You Can Dance’, his and Ivory Tower producer Boys Noize’s squelchy, skittery nod to funky disco. In the context of the show, it demonstrates the hydra-headed performer’s ability to slide effortlessly between genres, mediums and personas and is a change from his usual testosterone-y talk of hanging around “like ball sacks” – not that we mind, at all.
At a time when we’re constantly obsessed with new music, and its new bands who, for the most part, have nothing to say or are too scared to say anything for themselves, Gonzales is a rare species. His is a lesson in how to entertain beyond the music and how to work your crowd masterfully and charmingly. It’s a lesson that every up-and-coming performer, whether rising electronic producer or satirical cabaret balladeer and especially poor victims of the factory-line hype machine, should take detailed notes on.
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