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When it comes to the fine art of musical criticism, Reggie Watts can make us all feel a little dumb. While attempting to describe his stage show, keep track of how many times you pause and scratch your head. How many genres do you slap together, hoping in vain to find a combo that pegs this Afro-sporting, beat-boxing Renaissance man to a T? When you're done stammering like Russell Crowe's character in A Beautiful Mind, we suggest you keep it simple: He's a funky one-man band who's funny as fuck.
In front of an audience full of fans, it's likely even the most diehard among them have learned to not expect anything except his mountainous hair and whatever glorious Cosby sweater he happens to be wearing that night. In the fleeting seconds before he starts fumbling with his mic stand and his trusty keyboard-and-loop station, the layer cake of sonic absurdity built on a capella vocals about everything from blowjobs to big-ass purses is never planned. Half the time, it makes no sense whatsoever. Truthfully, he's not even trying to make you crack a smile with his absurd mix of soul and non sequitur comedy. He's trying to break your brain.
"Part of what I do is I rely on people not getting it," Watts says from his native Montana. It's one of the few days out of the year when he's not on tour, and he's spending it at his mom's house before heading to his Brooklyn stomping grounds. "Mostly, before I go onstage, I just say, 'Fuck it' and have a good time and hope my audience enjoys it."
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And they do. In the past few years, Watt's 'fro has cast a long shadow on all corners of the entertainment world. Maybe you're a fan of his co-hosting/musical-director duties on podcast-turned-TV-show Comedy Bang! Bang! (which is filming a second season in February for IFC). Or maybe you heard about him opening up for Conan O'Brien for 2010's Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour. And it's likely one of his viral video projects for Funny or Die and College Humor has allowed him to beatbox his way into your heart at one point or another. It's something Orange County fans will get to experience firsthand this week when the 40-year-old performer returns to the Segerstrom Center's unapologetically eclectic Off-Center Festival, offering a 13-day buffet of music, theater, dance and performance art priced to fit the average, broke twentysomething. To be honest, it's exactly the kind of place you expect Watts to do his thing.
Though he's made a name through his chance projects with guys such as Coco and Jack White and his trio of live albums (his latest, A Live at Central Park, came out in 2012), his video and theater creds are equally as formidable. In the past few months, his stint of one-off plays such as Crocodiles in Brussels and the U.K. were keeping him busy most of 2012. At some point, you have to wonder how much of the real Reggie we're actually seeing for a guy who spends 90 percent of his life onstage.
"It's not really too much of a difference; I just become a little more ridiculous onstage, I guess," he says. "I don't really prepare."
Likewise, opportunities such as getting the Conan tour 48 hours after one of O'Brien's writers (a friend of Reggie's) showed the ginger funnyman his video clips, or scoring music for the FX show Louie (had three days to write 10 episodes' worth of music) are haphazardly drawn to him. Never mind that he spent some of his formative years as a musician in Seattle trying to make it in a series of now-extinct, "serious" bands. One of them, a funk/soul outfit Maktub, still haunt the radio on occasion with their marginal 2003 hit "You Can't Hide." But who knows what a regular band featuring Watts' elastically soulful pipes would sound like in 2013. At least for now, it's not really on his radar.
"At some point, I hope to focus on music again more steadily," he says, "but this year's a lot about recording video, doing a lot of video projects and seeing what happens with that."
And even after he's worn so many hats throughout his career, rarely has he ever stopped to appraise his success. In fact, it's rare to even hear him call it that.
"Looking back, I can go, 'Oh, that was cool. People liked that,'" he says. "But my mode has always just been to keep on doing shit."