Reggie Watts’s Rifflandia set a puzzling but delightful gem

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I knew what to expect going into Reggie Watts’s Sept. 16 set on Rifflandia’s main stage. I knew, but I was still blindsided. Because even if you think you know what you’re in for with a Reggie Watts show, you don’t actually know. As both a musician and comedian, his entire performance is designed to tear apart and rearrange the collective mind of his audience, twisting and turning at every opportunity and never staying on one path too long.

About halfway through his one-hour set, Watts proclaimed, “This next one is meant to destabilize you.”

Indeed, the layered beatboxing and stream-of-consciousness lyrics were tremendously destabilizing, driving my ears and brain into new territory. It wasn’t just the jarring, fractured-but-somehow-still-rhythmic beats that did all the work; they were augmented by Watts’s trademark absurdist humour. Shifting through various accents that seemed to confuse many in the audience (one fellow crowd member asked, “Is he British?”), Watts sang and talked about an array of topics including Victoria (declaring it newly on his list of favourite places), cannabis, wheat-free food, nutrition and love. The cultural inflections that Watts adopted impressed, as did his sheer power and elasticity as he moved up and down the vocal register throughout seemingly every piece he created.

The show was a display of democratic art-making as Watts engaged with the crowd, responding with giant smiles to their shouts and confessions of love in a way that seems all too rare these days. His ability to change gears thematically between songs and in the midst of songs is awe-inspiring. The changes in tempo and mood weren’t the only things designed to crack open audience members’ heads; there were mind-bending sound distortions at every turn.

Even more puzzling was the incredible reverb that drowned out Watts’s voice, forcing it into the background. A friend pointed out that the soundman for the stage should have been fired because Watts was often inaudible, but after seeing him do a 15-minute sound check before his set, during which he touched all the knobs on his Line-6 amplifier and checked each speaker, I can safely say that Watts was the reason Reggie Watts was hard to hear. It’s part of the experience. Nothing is as it seems when Watts is on the stage.

My favourite moment of the mind-fuck Watts unleashed on Rifflandia was a passing, winking comment about the large black population in Victoria. It’s something that’s crossed my mind more than once, being one of the few people of colour at so very many shows here in Victoria. It was a nice little reminder that even though Watts’s performance is fractured and disorienting (but undeniably fun and full of love), he’s a keen observer of the little things around him and a thoroughly engaged performer. Watts is redefining what it means to be an artist, blurring the lines between comedy and music, and his Rifflandia set was just another example of how important he is in the modern media landscape.

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