SAN FRANCISCO — This is not the first time Jonathan Coulton, Paul and Storm and their “friends” have played Sketchfest. It’s not even the first time RIFF has reviewed their Sketchfest show.
Because of this the immediate temptation was to just copy the previous review, replace the “friends” with Molly Lewis and Jean Grae and hope nobody noticed. The past shows were even at the same venue and there’s already a joke about the quotes around friends to save us the trouble of coming up with a new one.
Unfortunately for our collective bedtime, but fortunately for the show itself, this brilliant scheme wouldn’t work. Rather than a traditional concert scheme where the various artists come out one by one, perform a few songs and then make way for the next act, the 2020 edition was more freeform. By which we mean it had more people sitting at the back of the stage in chairs.
Paul and Storm were the first act in that the first few songs were ones they wrote, but Coulton spent the whole time on stage either providing backup vocals, as he did for “Nugget Man,” or sitting behind them, as he did for the tragically outdated “Write Like the Wind,” encouraging George R. R. Martin to write new Game of Thrones books so he doesn’t hold up production of the show.
It was awkward for all involved. Including, presumably, George R. R. Martin, despite the fact he wasn’t actually in attendance.
After a while Storm handed his guitar—or possibly Coulton’s guitar, its ownership was never firmly established—to Coulton and, despite the personnel or number of instruments on stage not actually changing, the songs shifted to Coulton’s. After a brief stop at They Might Be Giants material; they performed their cover of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” with a box of Nerds candy as percussion.
Paul and Storm eventually sat down to let Coulton perform a snippet of one of his solo shows, though as is their way they continued to provide commentary. For example, when Coulton checked the setlist on his phone and exclaimed, “Oh, good!” Paul chimed in with, “Oh, is it one of the good ones?” Coulton replied, “It is. Not one of the garbage ones, I took most of those out of this set.”
Molly Lewis was the first friend to join them on stage, providing ukulele accompaniment for “Always the Moon,” a slow, sad and thoughtful song. It was at this point Lewis realized that they hadn’t taken tonal shifts into account when designing the set, focusing mostly on logistics and personnel to make sure everyone needed was already there.
It came up because Lewis’ first song was “Johnny Dick Legs,” which is about an Old West sheriff with penises for legs.
It’s an amazingly funny song, especially following an emotional breakup tune. She prefaced it by saying the audience had permission to be very disappointed in her—but the song got such a long, sustained round of applause she actually seemed to get awkward waiting for it to be over.
Of the entire show Lewis probably got the most laughs with her between-song jokes, and deservedly so because her delivery was perfect. This was especially true when she said, “It’s January so you know what that means: It’s almost pumpkin spice season.” That was by way of an introduction to “The Pumpkin Spice Lament,” from her musical about the war between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you’re not familiar with Molly Lewis you should remedy that situation.
Lewis brought Jean Grae, the evening’s final guest, to accompany her on her last song before handing the mic back to Coulton, who performed some of his songs from The Good Fight, a TV series that hired him to write explanatory interludes. It’s a long story.
Despite being an acclaimed musician in her own right, Grae used the time to tell a story about a lesson she learned from a fan at one of her shows in Australia. But it wasn’t quite that straightforward: She gave characters to the other four people on stage, and they ad-libbed commentary.
Paul was Ritchie Valens, Storm was Bobby McFerrin, Lewis was “Macavity exiting” and Coulton was “Low Energy Lil Jon.” It took them a bit to get warmed up, but in time Paul and Storm’s singing punctuated by Coulton’s bored “What.” or “OK.” became utterly hilarious.
The moral of Grae’s story: “Sometimes being a good person means you’ve gotta punch a motherfucker in the face.” That’s something that we can all get behind.
Finally, all five took the stage for Coulton’s least safe-for-work song, “First of May,” and called up Rhett Miller of the Old 97s who had the venue for the next show to join them on the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” with each performer taking a verse.
Now if only they’ll keep this format for next year, it will save us all a lot of writing and editing.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.