"Up until an hour ago, I thought this was a practical joke," said Christopher Guest as he stood at the podium at the Berklee Performance Center on Friday. But there he was, having just been given the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music by Berklee's president, Roger H. Brown, and for the sold-out crowd of 1,200, it was serious business.
On the surface, it wasn't difficult to see where Guest's skepticism came from. As integral as it's been to several of the movies he's directed ("A Mighty Wind," "Waiting For Guffman") and acted in ("This Is Spinal Tap"), his music would seem to have been secondary to the stories. But Brown read testimonials from jazz guitarist Mike Stern and Benjamin Verdery, chairman of the Yale School of Music's guitar department, that suggested that Guest's contributions to the field extended well beyond establishing a well-needed reality check for musical self-seriousness.
Starting off the concert that followed with "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," Spinal Tap's ode to underage girls and redundancy, could have undermined that point instantly. But the more than 25 musicians and singers (including four guitarists, a horn section, and a string quartet) appeared to be having quite possibly the best time they'd ever have making music.
There wasn't much radical rearrangement of the material. "Skeletons of Quinto" played up the song's Spanish influence (especially in Jim Kelly's guitar) while adding aspects of jazz and chamber music. The classical and baroque influences of "Cups and Cakes" were brought to the fore in an instrumental version that was as intricately arranged as "Eleanor Rigby." And Elvis Costello, in his prefilmed congratulations, offered a heartbreakingly pretty solo acoustic version of "A Penny for Your Thoughts."
But too much reinvention would have been a self-defeating mistake, imposing a musicality from the outside rather than letting Guest's songs speak for themselves. Most were simply adjusted to fit the size of the impressively honed band, often resulting in glorious bombast. Guest often joined in on rhythm guitar, deferring most of the leads to Kelly and Mirsad "Cuni" Besic.
An array of singers provided uniformly excellent vocals, from Owen McGreehan's chesty bluster on most of the Tap material to Jennifer Hirsh's swinging and charming "Nothing Ever Happens In Blaine," which captured just the right combination of boredom, frustration, and affection. Rebecca Muir's blues-rock take on "Gimme Some Money" faltered only in her failure to intone "Go, Nigel, go!" before the four guitarists traded solos.
Guest's biggest spotlight came during "Stonehenge," with his portentous English-accented intonations and some fleet-fingered mandolin playing that led to an extended Celtic stomp of a coda. But he stepped back into the ensemble for the closer, a triumphant and rapturously received "Big Bottom," which featured approximately 50 giddy bassists flooding the aisles and Brown providing the thunderous drumbeat. Any man who can get the president of Berklee to pound out an ode to large posteriors surely deserves the title of "doctor."