Chilly Gonzales at Sea Change: from Bach to Cyndi Lauper, “music is back motherf*ckers”

Next, the virtuoso Canadian will assault a piano, deconstruct 'Baby One More Time', rap, or cover George Michael, or all of the above, or none of them – the delight of a Chilly Gonzales show remains that you have no idea what he'll do next, but he'll be very good at it

Photography by Jay Bing

Last night, Chilly Gonzales started his festival-opening set at Sea Change, Totnes, with three medleys of solo piano chamber music, and ended it covering Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’. He began preened and looking like he smelled good, in his trademark smoking jacket and slippers, with his hair slicked back, and finished soaked in his old sweat, his hair too heavy to not fall forward, and looking like he didn’t smell good anymore.

This was his first time in Totnes, and mine too. We’d both heard good things, especially about the 600-capacity festival-about-town, Sea Change, hosted by local record store DRIFT. “Let’s make a deal: let’s not disappoint each other,” he said after his third instrumental piece, which was as beautiful and virtuosic as the previous two, but had the evening looking like it might consist solely of Gonzales playing well and keeping quiet.

I’ve never heard of him doing that, but I wouldn’t put anything past a man who previously held the world record for longest solo music performance (over 23 hours straight), and has delighted in trolling his audiences in the past. (On an episode of Midnight Chats, he spoke of his love for making the room feel slightly off, sometimes by performing a song that everyone knows is by The Beatles only to credit it to the Rolling Stones on mic and feed off the embarrassment the audience is feeling for him. It makes me think that his mistakenly calling tonight’s venue “Dartmouth Hall” rather than its correct name of Dartington Hall might not have been a slip of the tongue.)

But as the song goes, Gonzales is unable to shut up and play the piano. Not for an entire show, at least. He’s too good a raconteur, and too good a rapper, in fact. He proves it on one of three tracks where he’s joined by singer Anita Blay (their rendition of ‘The Grudge’ takes the show up a notch), before the pair attempt to put right ‘Slow Down’, a track from Gonzales’ miss-fire yacht rock album Soft Power – the problem, he says tonight, was that he sang the songs himself; bar far the weakest part of his game.

It’s good, but there’s better, from Gonzales’ masterful carousel of tricks: his pop masterclass, where he deconstructs pop music in front you (tonight we get how ‘Baby One More Time’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ stole a trick invented by Johann Sebastian Bach), his deadpan gags, his ability to turn a piano from a delicate jazz instrument into a manhandled beatbox, his refusal to buy into the notion of high and low culture to such an extent that his encore comprises of a vaudevillian instrumental of George Michael’s ‘Faith’ and a straight-up cover of ‘Time After Time’, accompanied one last time by Blay.

It’s hard to keep up with how many threats deep he is. Artists who play this academically are usually bores, and even those who don’t are rarely as hilarious as Gonzales is. His love for all genres of music – and his ability to nail them – mean you’ve got no idea what he’s going to do next, before you factor in his love for taking the piss.

By the end, he has no choice but to sweat through his smoking jacket. He reads a poem he’s written about Totnes and weed. Bows with Blay, and yells, “Music is back motherfuckers!”