reggie watts [2011]

San Francisco, CA
17 August 2011

Call me old-fashioned, but with very few exceptions, I like my comedy separate from my music. For every Flight of the Conchords, there are 27 horrible, horrible comedians mindlessly strumming acoustic guitars. Yes, 27.

But then, from out of seemingly nowhere, springs Reggie Watts. The apparent offspring of some unholy union of Bobby McFerrin, Q-Tip, Barry White and Steven Wright, Watts is pure genius. What does he do to deserve such praise? He layers like no other.

Everything Watts does is layering. Through his instamatic sampling he creates layer upon layer upon layer of sound, using only his voice and a loop pedal (with occasional keyboard). His voice is amazing: able to create rhythms (both simple and complex), mimic a myriad of instruments, freestyle with ease and croon honey-soaked soulful sounds over it all. And in between and throughout rushes a mad improvisational flow of comedy that’s absolutely mesmerizing.

But this is only the literal example of Watts’ layering. Equally intriguing is his constantly shifting identity. Watts was born in Germany to a French mother and an African-American father and raised in Great Falls, Montana. On stage, this ambiguity manifests itself in a gigantic combed out ‘fro, a large beard and suspenders hugging a rather portly frame. His accent shifts constantly: on this night, he began in Trinidad and made stops all over the map. (The fact that he’s fluent in German and French certainly must help).

As a result of all of this shifting, it’s impossible to nail down the real Reggie Watts. And I suppose that must be part of his goal: without a base, without a clear demonstrated identity, he can be anyone or everyone. Without this anchor, he can keep the audience in a constant state of flux. We laugh. We try to keep up. But with so many voices, we never can quite tell which is actually his own.

On this night at The Independent, during the second of two sold out sets, Watts spent considerable time lamenting the loss of his (imaginary) keyboardist, Lareese, who had to leave the band to assume the responsibilities of becoming a father. Watts gestured towards the empty keyboard stool with simultaneous anger and sadness over this musical and personal void. He created this person with such care and feeling that I found myself not really caring whether it was all scripted or improvised.

Reggie Watts is a vocal and musical chameleon with a mind that cannot and should not be confined to a linear path. Reined in, how could he possibly move from receiving emails asking for his expert opinion on the effectiveness of scarecrows, to Children of the Corn, to discussing the sad fate of real life “corn kids”? It’s a wild ride and I will without a doubt be taking it again.