I love Les Claypool. He always manages to bring righteous bass chops to the stage while delivering high entertainment – a mix of eye-crossing, mind-melting musicianship, weirdo antics and insightfully droll commentary. [Text by Leilani, photos by Tracy.]
This night found Claypool and his Primus cohorts returning to the venue they played in 2011, Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall. There were no openers; it was two full sets worth of Primus, the first set all Primus material, the second Primus and the Chocolate Factory with Fungi Ensemble performed in its entirety, and a three-song encore to top it all off, each segment separate, distinct, and unforgettable.
After a short burst of bizarrely whimsical entrance music, the three musicians made their way onto a stage stripped of any bells and whistles – curtains rising up behind them, instruments scattered around them, vivid sprays of mood-setting lights weaving back and forth across them – and proceeded to rock the funk out. Sometimes, the music bounced like a rubberband hopped-up on hillbilly twang or bumped and jumped in ska-flavored bursts; other times it lurched chunkily like a battered caterpillar or marched with heavy-chugging groove-pummeling force or bubbled, oozed and writhed in darkly pulsing experimental metallicscapes.
Tim “Herb” Alexander – drummer of Primus from its inception in 1989 through 1996 – returned to the fold last year, playing on Primus and the Chocolate Factory and now touring with Claypool and guitarist Larry LaLonde behind it. He perched behind a behemoth kit, bashing and pounding through tempo-changing, sometimes polyrhythmic rhythms with such force, ferocity and effortless ease it’s worth noting that the dude had a heart attack in July and doesn't seem to have suffered the loss of any power or prowess. LaLonde showed off equally capable axe technique, wringing out some of the most brain-twisting dissonant notes I’ve ever heard along with plenty of distorted riffs, screaming solos and layers of dark and dense sonic texture.
About four songs deep, Claypool struck up what seemed to be a one-sided conversation with a girl on her phone only a few rows from the stage. Here’s the gist: “Who are you texting, darling? Is it sexting? Come on, fill us in, it’s like gum in class, you have to share with everyone.” “Are you texting or are you videotaping?” “Put that thing down, you have the best seat in the house.” “If it’s Words With Friends, I understand, my wife is crazy about that shit.” At some point, he grabbed the girl's phone and attempted to turn it around and start recording her, but he admittedly failed and turned his attention to offering commentary on the city and venue the band had ended up in. (“That’s what I’m really known for, my witty repartee on the mic.”)
The real highlight of the first set followed, when Claypoll pointed out the American flag hanging in Ruth Eckerd’s performance hall and encouraged LaLonde to play a patriotic guitar solo in its honor. LaLonde obliged, laying down a bluesy Hendrix-at-Woodstock passage that eventually found his bandmates joining him in funk-metallic back-up. All of it devolved into washes of drippy, acid-tripping discordance I dubbed “Flag Jam Ooze” before Les stopped everything “Larry, that doesn’t sound very patriotic," he pointed out. "Now let’s try this again.” LaLonde re-tuned his guitar and launched back into the bluesy howlings before the band returned to regular operating procedure and setlist as usual.
The set drew on material from Sailing the Seas of Cheese and Frizzle Fry (including a rather epic, jam-juiced version of “The Toys Go Winding Down”),The Brown Album and Green Naugahyde, ending with the double punch of Pork Soda’s “My Name Is Mud” (with a memorable drums and bass duel-off that put Les’ double-thumping capabilities on full display and matched Alexander's own rapid kit-hitting) and Cheese’s “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver.”
The curtain dropped and activities behind it began in earnest, its eventual rise for the second set revealing an abstract Willy Wonka-inspired feast of visuals, giant mushroom inflatables flanking either side of the stage, oversized plastic-wrapped candies scattered in front, smaller mushroom heads popping up amid the band (now joined by Fungi Ensemble, one on cello, the other handling vibes, marimba and hand percussion), giant lollipops and faux windows at their backs, and in the center of it all, a huge video screen flickering with changing projections that, when not candy-related, complemented whatever songs they performed during the Chocolate Factory set while lining up, in an abstract way, with the events in the 1970 film; a forlorn little face (“Cheer Up Charlie”), bars of gold and an old man dancing a soft shoe (“Golden Ticket”), bobbing and shimmying mushroom caps (“Pure Imagination”), psychedelic logarithmic spirals and whirling tunnels of kaleidoscopic color (“Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride”).
Their re-imagining of the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack was delivered note-perfect in a live setting, Claypool drawing the groaning demented-cow notes from his electric upright bass in long bowed strokes during "The Candy Man” (with freakish cud-chewing cows on the screen behind him) – but it was more dynamic, loud and darkly bizarre in a live setting, especially when paired with the eye-popping visuals, occasional appearances by a pair of dancing and squatting Oompa Loompas with oversized paper mache heads, and Claypool as Wonka Wilder replete with purple velvet topcoat and tails, curly wig and jaunty purple top hat.
The set's end was followed by much enthusiastic howling and "Primus Sucks" shouts from the crowd, the musicians eventually returning to deliver a mash-up of Primus material with Wonka visual flourishes, joined by Fungi Ensemble for the last two numbers — a propulsive grooving rendition of “Southbound Pachyderm” that was accompanied by the best and most charming animation of the night (a white glowing elephant bouncing away on a trampoline and gaining some real good sky-touching momentum), and "Here Come the Bastards” to close, the video screen featuring freaky Planet of the Apes-reminiscent characters riding bikes through suburbia and broken up by a clip of the two Oompas traipsing around Clearwater.
Overall, Primus delivered the sort of musical moments that make your cheeks hurt from grinning, and yet, are so goddamn sick that your grin twists into a stank-face WTF? grimace of awed appreciation.
Last Salmon Man
The Toys Go Winding Down
Over the Falls
Lee Van Cleef
My Name is Mud
Jerry Was a Racecar Driver
Willy Wonka set (with The Fungi Ensemble)
Cheer Up Charlie
Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride
I Want It Now
Southbound Pachyderm (with The Fungi Ensemble)
Here Come the Bastards (with The Fungi Ensemble)