Moontower Fest ends on emotional high with Maya Rudolph-led tribute to Prince

Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum lead Princess, a Prince cover band, at Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival Saturday, April 23.
Maya Rudolph and Gretchen Lieberum lead Princess, a Prince cover band, at Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival Saturday, April 23. Credit: Rustin Gudim / contributed by Moontower

Princess,” a full Prince cover band led by comics and longtime friends Maya Rudolph and vocalist Gretchen Lieberum, had already been on the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival since February. It seemed like a fun musical curiosity, something along the lines of Fred Armisen’s Ian Rubbish show from two years ago.

With the death of Prince on Thursday, the show became so much more. What was already going to be a tribute to Prince’s music and persona became a necessary, cathartic tribute. At times it was funny; Maya Rudolph’s Prince-like sexy declarations and her on-point dance moves and shoulder hiccups made it impossible not to giggle. But it was also incredibly sad, especially as the night concluded, when a tearful Rudolph clearly didn’t want the performance to end. After throwing batches of flowers to the audience, she thanked the Austin audience and said the performance was therapeutic.

“It’s nice to be sad with you all and happy at the same time,” she said earlier in the show. “It never occurred to me that we might ever perform this music when he’s not alive.”

Was there ever a chance the show would be canceled? Not at all. “I couldn’t think of anything I’d like to do more than play this music now,” she said defiantly at the start of the show.

Kicking off with “Let’s Go Crazy,” the show dispelled any notion that it might just be an indulgent karaoke romp of Prince’s hits. Rudolph and Lieberum are clearly hardcore fans and they focused on Prince’s early work, eschewing his later work for songs from “Dirty Mind,” “Controversy” and “1999.” They even threw in an unreleased song, “Purple Music,” and played nothing from after “Purple Rain.”

No “Diamonds and Pearls,” no “Gett Off,” nothing from “Sign O’ The Times” or as one audience member called out for, the “Batman” soundtrack.

Which speaks to the breadth of Prince’s discography: it was a lengthy and complete show even focused on just that early timeframe.

Audience members were given purple glow sticks they waved around in the Paramount Theatre and for at least the first half of the show, it was a standing room, more concert than comedy show. “You can call Uber in 85 minutes,” Rudolph said, urging everyone to stand and dance after the first song.

Rudolph and Lieberum earned laughs with their half-naked all-male band and their shirtless helper “Tampico,” who wiped mustache sweat from Rudolph’s upper lip and showered the singers with rose petals at one point.

How did the band sound? A little shaky toward the end of “Let’s Go Crazy,” but more confident as the show went on and Rudolph, the daughter of “Lovin’ You” singer Minnie Riperton, and Lieberum, have got pipes. Whether solo or in harmony, they sounded great and were well-composed despite what must have been the crushing emotional weight of this week’s loss.

“The Beautiful Ones” was a goosebump-inducing thrill and “Jack U Off” still had a raunchy, eye-popping impact 34 years after its release (Rudolph and Lieberum’s hand gestures only enhanced the not-so-well-known song). “Darling Nikki” even had the backward-singing part at the end, which Prince Rogers Nelson himself advised they include.

The duo got to meet Prince backstage at one of his shows after he’d seen their covers performance on TV, which he enjoyed. “I’ve got you programmed on my DVR,” he told them, perhaps the sexiest use of the word “DVR” in recorded history.

Rudolph described seeing Prince in concert for the first of many times when she was a pre-teen and Lieberum told in detail the story of seeing “Purple Rain” in a theater with her grandmother’s friend at 11 and having her sexuality awoken that night.

By the “Purple Rain” encore, an emotionally exhausting, but completely funky night ended with Rudolph saying she’s not sure what the future of Princess will be, but that she wants nothing more than to keep performing. “Now I just wanna sing more songs. I know that’s what Prince would do,” she said.

Set list:

“Let’s Go Crazy”
“Controversy”
“When You Were Mine”
“Head”
“Sister”
“Let’s Pretend We’re Married”
“Jack U Off”
“Purple Music” (unreleased)
“The Beautiful Ones”
“The Breakdown”
“Little Red Corvette”
“Delirious”
“Darling Nikki”
Encore: “Purple Rain”

More photos, credit Maggie Lea, Paramount Theatre / Moontower Comedy Festival:

There’s lots to laugh at in Austin this summer

Comedy acts from Don Rickles to Joe Rogan land on Austin stages this summer.

Don Rickles and Regis Philbin.
Don Rickles and Regis Philbin perform at Austin’s Bass Concert Hall in June.

It seems as if the hotter it gets outside, the more difficult it becomes to laugh. Maybe that explains the relatively sparse list of big comedy names stopping in Austin over the summer (especially in July).

Or perhaps it’s just that comedy bookers — like comedy fans — are notorious procrastinators. For example, we still don’t know if Funny or Die, which has brought acts including Dave Chappelle and Flight of the Conchords to the Austin360 Amphitheater over the past two summers, is mounting a tour this year and whether or not it will stop in Austin (the tour usually begins in August).

Still, there are plenty of national headliners worth checking out, in addition to the locals, who never, ever stop.

Iliza Shlesinger
Iliza Shlesinger

Cap City Comedy Club (8120 Research Blvd.) brings in Tommy Davidson, Iliza Shlesinger and Tom Green in June; Michael Ian Black in July; and Mary Lynn Rajskub in August. For times, tickets and other information, call 512-467-2333 or visit www.capcitycomedy.com.

Aussie comic Jim Jefferies, star of the FX television series, “Legit,” brings his raunchy comedy to the Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.) at 8 p.m. on June 4. For tickets, $39.50-$44.50, call 512-474-1221 or browse to www.austintheatre.org.

On June 24 at 7 p.m., the Paramount presents comic legend Don Rickles with TV legend Regis Philbin at Bass Concert Hall (2350 E. Campus Dr.). With an admirable lack of Cosby-like scandals, insult comic and “Mr. Warmth” Rickles remains the comedic elder statesman to see. Tickets range from $55-$130 and can be obtained by calling 512-471-2787 or surfing to texasperformingarts.org.

Puddles Pity Party brings the tears of a clown to the Stateside at the Paramount (713 Congress Ave.) at 7 p.m. on June 27. The imposing clown with the most beautiful and unexpected voice has been a standout at previous Moontower Comedy Festivals. $30 tickets can be purchased by calling 512-474-1221 or visiting www.austintheatre.org.

Perennial Austin visitor and “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” panelist Paula Poundstone returns to One World Theatre (7701 Bee Cave Rd.) for a pair of shows — 7 and 9:30 p.m. — on Aug. 22. For tickets, $25-$65, and information, call 512-330-9500 or visit www.oneworldtheatre.org.

Joe Rogan PHOTO: JOSHUA HEGES
Joe Rogan
PHOTO: JOSHUA HEGES

Stand-up comic, conspiracy theorist and former “Fear Factor” host Joe Rogan performs at ACL-Live (310 Willie Nelson Blvd.) at 8 p.m. on Aug. 29. $38 tickets can be purchased by calling 877-435-9849 or heading to www.acl-live.com online. (Weird Al Yankovic plays the venue on Aug. 20, but his gig is sold out.)

If Summer ends Labor Day weekend, then we are contractually obligated to include the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, running Sept. 1-7 at various venues in Austin. And why wouldn’t we? The festival — now in its 14th year — brings improv, sketch comedy and stand-up performers from all over to play with the locals. Find more information at www.outofboundscomedy.com.

Moontower Friday: Patton Oswalt and Jonathan Katz

Patton Oswalt headlines at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING
Patton Oswalt headlines at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING

I didn’t have to go see Friday’s “Dr. Katz Live” at the Stateside Theatre, part of the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. My colleague Omar Gallaga went on Thursday and did a great job in his write-up of the event which, except for a few different comics (I got to see Eddie Pepitone, Todd Barry and Marc Maron instead of Dana Gould, Maria Bamford and Andy Kindler) seemed pretty much the same.

But, like Omar, I could not resist the chance to see a memorable part of my past played out live onstage. For those not in the know, comic Jonathan Katz plays a psychiatrist named Jonathan Katz whose patients are all stand-up comics.

As in Thursday night’s outing, Emo Philips (he played both shows along with Dom Irrera) best embodied the spirit of the original squiggle-vision cartoon, and not just because of his spastic movements. He drew great laughs from the crowd throughout his visit, mostly with cleverly placed lines from his stand-up act, while Katz sat by and watched.

Phillips is not a Scientologist, he insisted, explaining that he’s “not a fan of stupidity even when it’s not evil.”

Jonathan Katz in "Dr. Katz Live" at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING
Jonathan Katz in “Dr. Katz Live” at the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival. MANDY EARNSHAW / BIRDSONG IMAGING

The neurotic Maron, as you might imagine also fared extremely well on the bogus therapist’s couch (well, chair). At one point, he told Katz he was uncomfortable talking about his problems in front of a theater full of people, asking, “Are we still in the bit?”

After a brief stop at the Moontower Lounge on the second floor of the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, I headed next door to the Paramount Theatre to see Patton Oswalt (“King of Queens,” “Ratatouille”), the festival’s hottest ticket.

The Moontower organizers did a stellar job of arranging the openers for Oswalt. Mike MacRae ably warmed up the crowd for Brian Gaar, who absolutely nailed his set with stories and jokes about parenting, video games and the city of Waco, where he grew up. Gaar explained Waco with a single sentence: “They built a new road … and they named it New Road.” Later, he told the audience he was awakened by a police officer at 3 a.m. because the cop wanted his help in stealing the New Road sign. A joke about a Master’s Degree in English was a masterclass in comic timing.

Gaar was followed by “Mr. Show” actor Karen Kilgariff who, with beatboxer Drennon Davis, entertained the crowd with original musical numbers, the funniest of which was a song about horrible tattoos. “I think we struck a nerve,” Kilgariff cracked in the middle of the number, which really couldn’t have been more tailor-made for the Austin crowd.

Oswalt, naturally, delivered in spades.

He began with a 10-15 minute bit about waiting on the Congress Avenue bridge for the bats to appear, a visit he had just made prior to the show. The brand new routine was, remarkably, as polished as his standard tour material. It contained detailed descriptions of crowd members and ended with a killer line about a man who had been waiting in front of him for an hour, only to finally turn around and ask the other crowd members what they were all waiting for.

Other material touched on religion, his worst gig ever, his parents, clowns, and the song “The Little Drummer Boy.”

Oswalt was also in hilarious form during his crowd work. He nearly whiffed with the first two audience members he singled out — a woman who did marketing for start-ups, and a Family and Sports Medicine doctor. But he struck comic gold with his third victim, an author who wrote modern feminist fiction under a pen name. When pressed about why she used a pseudonym, Oswalt got the woman to admit it was because some people would consider the work to be erotica. Oswalt then guessed that her pen name must be “Vulva Fantastic.”

I’m sure that wasn’t the woman’s actual nom de plume, but “fantastic” is actually a pretty accurate way to describe Friday at Moontower.

Moontower Thursday: Tim Minchin and Emo Philips

Emo Phillips and Tim Minchin at the Moontower Comedy Festival. DALE ROE / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Emo Philips and Tim Minchin at the Moontower Comedy Festival. DALE ROE / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The last time I was this close to comedian Emo Philips was 30 years ago. He was performing in front of a few dozen people in the basement of a Jake’s Pizza Parlor in Lisle, a western suburb of Chicago, Ill. (Philips is a native of another nearby suburb, Downer’s Grove).

I wasn’t sure what to expect these days from the extremely weird stand-up, but his hilarious (and far too-short) set at the Speakeasy Thursday during the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival capped off a terrific night that began at the Paramount Theatre with the musical comedy of Tim Minchin, who I mainly wanted to see so that I could stop hearing people tell me “You’ve got to go see Tim Minchin!”

These folks, mainly organizers from the Paramount, played the atheist and skeptic Minchin’s performance up to ironically biblical proportions.

And Minchin over-delivered.

The eccentric-appearing singer, pianist and composer walked onstage wearing heavy eye make-up (the better to see his hilarious expressions); a stylish, fitted suit; and neither shoes nor socks.

Tim Minchin performs musical comedy during the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.
Tim Minchin performs musical comedy during the 2015 Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.

You know that expression that somebody was “played like a fiddle”? That’s the best way I can explain how Minchin manhandled and caressed the grand piano at which he sat for the better part of an hour and a half. Perhaps those dark eyes hypnotized his audience, because I can clearly remember him ripping the keys from the instrument, mashing them together, remixing them — bending and shaping them to his will.

It would have been a great show had he simply played — and played anything — on the piano. But the songs he sang were similarly twisted, full of witty jabs at politics, war, religion and family life. Like a magician, Minchin repeatedly led the crowd down a path and then took sharp turns, veering in directions we never expected to go.

I should qualify that “we,” because so many members of the audience were thoroughly familiar with Minchin’s songs; if you can sing along with the intricate and silly, Tom Lehrer-style rhymes Minchin composes, then you’re a fan.

Minchin claimed that he’s not a comedian, but his occasional non-musical interludes between numbers proved otherwise. I was especially impressed by his crowd work.

He ended his performance with a touching rendition of “Seeing You,” a number he wrote for the stage musical version of “Groundhog Day” he is putting together with Danny Rubin, who penned the script for the Bill Murray movie and is writing the book for the musical.

It was a sweet, but oddly conventional ending to the unconventional show — another surprise twist.

Emo Philips put the odd in the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.
Emo Philips put the odd in the Moontower Comedy and Oddity Festival.

Speaking of odd, let’s get back to Philips.

Still sporting his familiar page boy haircut and a wide-sleeved, prison gray tunic, the comic appeared in a curated set hosted by the Sklar Brothers (who were great, but repeated some of the same material they presented at last year’s Moontower).

He’s got the same slow, affected, falsetto delivery you remember, but his non-sequitur barbs (think Steven Wright or Mitch Helberg, who must have been inspired by Philips) seemed edgier than I had recalled.

Even old gems such as, “A Mormon told me that they don’t drink coffee. I said, ‘A cup of coffee every day gives you wonderful benefits.’ He said, ‘Like what?’ I said, ‘Well, it keeps you from being Mormon …'” sounded fresh and drew belly-laughs from the crowd.

“I prefer smart audiences because smart people don’t heckle,” one of his newer jokes began. “If a smart person doesn’t like a comedian, he just blames himself for not having more assiduously researched his entertainment options. Stupid people shout, ‘You suck.’ Smart people think, ‘I suck, for not Googling him.'”

Philips appears again at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Stateside’s “Dr. Katz Live”; at 8:15 Friday at the Parish for “Stars in Bars”; and at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in “Stars in Bars” at the Vulcan Gas Company.