Shuffling on stage in a manky checked dressing gown, fluffy slippers, straggly hair and three-day stubble, Chilly Gonzales has that spaced-out aura of a man who’s just rolled out of bed to watch Jeremy Kyle for the day. But then he silently takes the stool at the grand piano and lets his fingers to the talking for 15 minutes – there’s plenty of time for banter during the next hour and a half, when we find out he really does love the sound of his own voice. It’s called the Solo Piano Talk Tour for a reason.
Canadian Gonzales (“NEVER with a ‘z’ at the end ,” he warns ) is an always filed under ‘quirky’ or ‘eccentric’; a sometime rapper, electro dabbler, producer, film director and piano virtuoso who channels Erik Satie, the jazz greats and the absurdist vaudeville pop of Sparks, among others. Collaborations with a long list including Buck 65, Jane Birkin, Tiga, Boys Noize and Erol Alkan for starters means he crosses over into many camps. He even holds the world record for the longest solo performance, a finger-cramping 27 hours, so this 90-minute set may as well be a tea break recital for him. He opens with the minimalist plaintive ‘Gogol’ from his 2004 Solo Piano album, segueing into ‘Overnight’, with the seated audience in the tiered rows silent, still, and the latecomers standing at the back swaying slightly, reeled in already. After a jaunty ‘Oregano’, his right hand a blur of high notes and jazz inflections, he suddenly stops, crosses his legs and declares: “So I’m Chilly Gonzales, musical genius, I have a lot of famous friends… I have Jarvis Cocker on speed dial,” and so begins the messing. “I’m here to win something. Entertainment is war and I’m here to win,” he declares. “The fact that you laughed when I said musical genius – that motivates me, I thrive in adversity.”
It’s often said that no two Chilly gigs are ever the same. There’s been an infamous piano duel with Andrew WK, Feist duetting on stage holding a tape recording of her voice to the mic, audience participation and stage diving off his piano. This Sugar Club show is probably as conventional as he gets – as well as the stunning 15-minute piano solos (from delicate tinkering to arcade machine button-bashing), he pulls off long-winded self-deprecating freestyle rhymes and an off-the-cuff raconteur routine that would give Tom Waits a run for his money. ‘The Grudge’, from his latest Boys Noize-produced album Ivory Tower gets a softer treatment here, the crescendo chorus toned down, leaving rhymes about “somebody I hate”. Hailing rap as the “only new type of music to come out of our lifetime,” he claims: “You have a responsibility to work out why it’s taken over the world – watching a clip of Die Antwoord isn’t good enough.”
For all his affected comedy Narcissism, you’re left with an idea that he’s on a mission to open doors for his audience – he is after all a Jewish MC who relocated to Berlin 10 years ago just to set himself a hell of a challenge. Maybe he’ll change a few minds with his pseudo postmodern freestyle ‘rap about rap’ that dismisses the guns ’n’ bling stereotypes, channelling his “inner Larry David”. Maybe a few heads in the Sugar Club will be turned on to Satie and the often untapped legacy of jazz virtuosos. He even gives a ‘lecture’ on the emotional effect of major and minor keys after trying to crack on to a girl in the audience, illustrated with a sombre minor key Chariots of Fire he redubs ‘Chariots on Fire’.
Maybe a 27-hour concert wasn’t such a stretch for Gonzales after all, he’d play all night if he could, and we’d let him. He says he was here to win something, and by the time he has the whole crowd humming for 10 minutes as a mass choir, you know he got what he came for.
Photo from flickr.