Fred Armisen Sings, Drums and Strums into Chicago's Heart

Photo by Lance Bangs

Photo by Lance Bangs

By Sofia Bening

When world-famous comedian, actor and former Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen first appeared onstage at the Metro, hardly anybody noticed.

It was Saturday night and the place was packed to the walls, but while the house music still played and lighting remained unchanged, Armisen strolled onstage, dressed in dark jeans and an olive jacket. He waved to the crowd almost meekly, saying, “Hi! Hello. Hi everyone.” The buzzing crowd noticed him in waves, and before fans squeezed into the far corner at the back got wind that yes, he’s actually here, the Portlandia co-creator had already begun the first part of his act: poking fun at the music that’s always in instructional videos.

The show was the last stop on Armisen’s tour, “Comedy for Musicians but Everyone is Welcome”. A fitting title, since for the remaining 90 minutes, the funnyman charmed and dazzled his audience with his signature Armisen-esque brand of comedy: deadpan, observational jokes and impressions, but largely with a focus on music. After all, before embarking on a career in comedy, Armisen was a musician, most known for being the drummer of Chicago rock band Trenchmouth in the 80s and 90s.

“This is hugely emotional for me,” he gushed, referring to choosing the Windy City as his last stop. “I really, really in a major way grew up here. I actually lived two doors down from here.” Armisen recounted fond memories of his time not only in Chicago, but in the Metro itself, where he and Trenchmouth had played numerous times. He even managed to uncover receipts revealing how much Metro had paid them for a gig in the 90s: a hundred bucks.

Longtime fans were delighted when he brought out Trenchmouth vocalist Damon Locks and bassist Wayne Montana. The three of them acted out a skit that Armisen wrote, titled Band Breakfast Drama, which highlighted Armisen’s self-proclaimed struggle to have a nice breakfast while also accommodating his bandmates.

Already known for his acting chops, Armisen impressed with his musical talents. A one-man show, he made use of the entire stage, shifting from mic to mic, changing from drums, to guitar, to a sampler. In one bit, he demonstrated the entire history of punk-rock drumming. In the next, he observed how “Carry on my Wayward Son” is essentially seven songs mashed into one, and brilliantly showed how a new Kansas guitarist would be utterly flustered and confused by the incoherence of his part. He also sang seven original songs he’d written for fan-favorite SNL sketches, such as “Fist Fight” from Punk Band Reunion at the Wedding.

Perhaps the most surprising part of watching Armisen do his thing was that it didn’t feel like you were watching a household name, a huge comedy star who’s a regular on Jimmy Fallon and Conan. It felt more like you were just chilling with an old friend, or a really, really cool uncle. Armisen is just so genuine—from his unassuming entrance to his on-the-spot granting of fans’ song requests to his occasional bumbling around with mics and admitting he “didn’t think this bit through, argh!” and the fact that not all his jokes were laugh-out-loud hilarious, and he knew that (“Maybe I’ll say something funny…maybe I won’t”).

Much like how he arrived, Armisen exited in a no-frills, no-fanfare fashion, deeply thanking the crowd. “This means so much to me to see all of you, and to be back here in Chicago. Thank you so much.” It’s clear to everyone in the room that Armisen loves music with every funny bone in his body—and as he strolled offstage, once again waving meekly, it’s also clear why watching Armisen is such a joy: he just simply wants to share that love with everyone.

Steven Norwalk