SAN FRANCISCO — Without context, all the evidence pointed to Jonah Ray’s appearance at Cafe du Nord being primarily a comedy show.
For one thing, Ray is a comedian, arguably best known as the third and most recent host of the legendary comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000. He was there to play covers of Weird Al songs, which are of course themselves mostly parodies of other songs. And it was a part of SF Sketchfest, a comedy festival.
So imagine the surprise when it turned out to be a punk show.
It’s not that there weren’t warning signs. One of which was an actual sign taped to the front gate warning, in more colorful language, that it would be loud and offering ear plugs for sale. Lit by the Cafe du Nord’s neon sign it was a literal red flag.
Ray was funny, of course, but this was very much a punk show and he reveled in it. He clearly loved being on stage, band behind him, belting out lyrics. Granted, those lyrics were to Weird Al classics like “Eat It” and “Dare to be Stupid,” but the music from his backing band was absolutely, 100-percent punk.
Ray’s 2019 EP that inspired the show, You Can’t Call Me Al—that’s the album cover above—is just under eight minutes long, so there needed to be a bit more to it to fill out the 20-minute set. In addition to all four Weird Al songs from the album and a punk rendition of his song “Every Country Has a Monster” from MST3K, he filled out the set with additional Weird Al songs “Trigger Happy” and “Yoda,” plus Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety” from the movie of the same name.
The songs themselves were parodies in the exact opposite way as Weird Al’s; while he replaces the words to songs and keeps the music the same, Ray kept the words and replaced all the music. There’s a weird sort of symmetry to it. And it totally worked, mostly because the new music was very good.
Prior to Ray, MST3K alum Kevin Murphy performed two songs with an acoustic guitar and Ray on bongos. It was much closer to what the nerdier, more unprepared fans were there to see, and in addition to being utterly hilarious the music was genuinely good.
The two songs were one from a RiffTrax Live show about the spider from The Giant Spider Invasion, and the other was an acoustic medley of “Hot Blooded,” “We Will Rock You,” “You Shook Me,” “I Get Around,” “Pumped Up Kicks,” “Gin and Juice,” and other songs. It was, quite frankly, amazing.
Jonah Ray doesn’t actually, strictly speaking, have a band. The band he borrowed, JR Slayer, is a project from his album’s producer, Cody Votolato. Votolato used to play in Blood Brothers. Probably the least punk of the four acts—Murphy singing about a giant spider from an old B-movie makes the Sex Pistols look like ABBA—they were also the most musically complex.
Opening the night, and making JR Slayer seem a bit out of place by comparison was Oakland’s own Shutups. Being locals, Shutups drew quite a few fans despite being the first act of the night.
The indie punk duo and its band were the initial shock to the system for those expecting a traditional comedy show, causing at least one MST3K fan to plug his ears with his fingers, which for a punk band is the highest compliment.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.