Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Shine On You Crazy Wiggle

He appeared like a ghost before the show and his specter hung over the entire evening.

Just before Australia’s biggest band took the stage in Kansas City on Tuesday night, founding front man Greg delivered a recorded message on the giant screen, explaining that a condition called orthostatic intolerance had forced him to retire from performing. He then ceremonially handed a long-sleeved t-shirt to a protégé named Sam, passing the torch to the new Yellow Wiggle.

With that, Sam – and original Wiggles Murray, Anthony and Jeff – stormed the stage in their Big Red Car, and they brought along all their famous friends. Captain Feathersword (the fifth Wiggle) was there, as were Wags the Dog, Dorothy the Dinosaur, and Henry the Octopus.

Still, it seemed like something was missing.

While Sam filled the yellow shirt admirably, as the night went along, it became clear that Greg was the David Lee Roth of the Wiggles. I realize that I’ve mixed classic rock metaphors here, but such is the power of the Wiggles, who bring Van Halen’s Big Lost Weekend to the pre-school set and mix it with trippy, mind-expanding psychedelia a la Pink Floyd (you watch a red-rose-eating, green-and-yellow-spotted, dress-and-hat-wearing dinosaur sing and dance and tell me that it’s without lysergic origins).

In the end, the problem was earnestness. Clearly feeling a duty to recreate the Wiggles experience as authentically as possible, Sam’s faithfulness bordered on mimicry, like when Ripper Owens temporarily filled Rob Halford’s leather, studs and codpiece in Judas Priest (the metaphors are coming at warp speed now). Lost was the insouciance and irreverence that Greg brought to the original band, stripping the psycho-sexual drama out of classics like “Fruit Salad,” “Joanie Works With One Hammer” and “Do the Monkey,” rendering them little more than children’s songs.

The evening still had its charms, though, as when the band went deeper into the catalog for tunes like “Swim Like a Fish” and “Romp-Bomp-A-Stomp,” leaving long-time fans overjoyed (though several clearly were disappointed that “Cruncy Munchy Honey Cakes” failed to make the set list). And the production was first-rate, with enough streamers and confetti to win over even the most hardened skeptic. Despite it being a transitional period for the Wiggles, the beat goes on.

Still, it’s hard not to wonder where it all goes from here. Last night was mostly about nostalgia, as the band traded on its old hits while introducing a new member. With Greg gone, a creative vacuum has been formed within the group, sure to be filled by the extroverted Anthony or the more brooding Murray (Jeff, with his extreme narcolepsy, seems permanently relegated to a supporting role). Will it be a peaceful coexistence? Will one or the other come to dominate the group? Will creative tensions rip the band apart? Or will they elevate the Wiggles to new heights?

In the end, it’s hard to know, but I suspect that Murray, haunted by his friend’s departure, moves to the fore, and brings a more thematic element to the band. I see an old-style double-album/rock opera in him, exploring the debilitating effects of money and fame. Greg, though gone, will continue to be central to Murray’s psyche, as he comes to grips with how to emerge from his friend’s long shadow and lead the band. For him and for us, the defining question will be: Which one’s Yellow?

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