Review: Maynard James Keenan reveals his Puscifer side at the Straz Center, Tampa

click to enlarge The Enigma himself, Maynard James Keenen, shrouded in shadows -
The Enigma himself, Maynard James Keenen, shrouded in shadows

Puscifer is the musical creation of Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of better known alt metal bands Tool and A Perfect Circle. It's an art rock project with constantly changing guest musicians, like model/actress Milla Jovovich and Primus drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, and an always evolving sound and direction. Because Keenan is the only permanent member, I had a hard time picturing just how Puscifer would play out in a live setting, but was ecstatic when I realized I'd get a chance to see for myself in person when the band brought their current tour to the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. [Text by Marci, photos by Chris.]

The Monday evening show started when Keenan walked out onto the Ferguson Hall stage, a cowboy hat set low over his face, and started setting up camp. Literally. There was an Airstream, a drum set balanced on a hay trailer and a keyboard built to look like a grill. Keenan arranged chairs around a table and poured wine (surely his own label) into stemless glassware, discussing sustainability and summarizing Puscifer as a project aimed at creating something 'with every breath we draw.' This interaction drew an almost Tourette's-like reaction from several audience members, who started shouting random expletives at such a rate that I wondered if they were plants who were part of the landscape of the show. And then finally, when his "hippie drum circle" was complete, he warned us of the dangers of the desert and welcomed us to Puscifer.

The visuals were a complex and constantly changing aspect to the concert. The small stage was packed with performers and their instruments – a drummer, pianist, two guitarists, and two vocalists – who were scattered amid all the props. Add to that TV's on either side of the stage displaying images that changed to go along with each song, and a backdrop that had its own moving images projected onto it. Many were politically and socially motivated, like those that played during "Toma," which featured a fake Arizona Border Patrol sign reading "We put the PANIC in Hispanic." For "Rapture," the TV screens flashed images of celebrities like Rush Limbaugh, Steven Tyler and Michael Vick spiraling into flames. We were also treated to the occasional short, between-song videos of Keenan dressed up as his alter egos — military man Major Douche (clearly of French ancestry, his name pronounced so that it rhymes with "touché') and conspiracy theorist Dick Merkin, who told us that Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears were ambassadors of the good aliens and that the bad aliens listen to Tool, which was met by roaring applause.

The other singer on this tour is LA songstress Carina Round, and she was simply amazing. Keenan has a big, strong, clear voice and her gravel-tinged timbre complimented his own flawlessly. Her solo in "Rev. 22:20" was pitch-perfect, the unforced huskiness of her voice growling "I know Christ is comin', so am I," a sarcastically blasphemous play on the Bible verse of the song' title. As Carina took the spotlight, Keenan sat at the front of the stage and bobbed his head along, a sharp contrast to the Keenan I saw perform with A Perfect Circle, where he stood in the back corner of the stage, completely unlit and secluded from the rest of the band and audience.

About halfway through the show, there was a shift in energy and the mood got more serious as the music grew bigger and fuller. The first sign came during a performance of "Oceans" off their new release, Conditions of My Parole. It began with a gorgeous swelling of instrumentals and revealed Puscifer's softer side, with Keenan crooning, "Rest, my sister, and tell me all about the ocean." "Horizons" proved another highlight, jostling us back to life after the serene down-tempo pace of "Monsoons," and the setlist got progressively lusher and louder until they arrived at "The Undertaker." Full of pounding drums and miles of reverb, the track had everyone on their feet swaying respectfully in front of their assigned seats. When it ended, the musicians put down their instruments and walked to the front of the stage, each taking a seat to accept the applause. Maynard explained that they were too lazy to go through the motions of an encore, so he was just going to sit there for a bit while we all pretended he was going backstage and then pretended that he was returning, which we all did with the proper level of cued applause.

They encored with "Tumbleweed," opening as Carina walked back to her microphone and building as eventually each band member made his way, one at a time, from the "campfire" back to their posts to join in, then left the stage to wild hoots, expletives and applause.

While Keenan may have shied away from photographers in the beginning of the show, his emotions were on full display for his fans all throughout and I don't think anyone who was present ever expected to enjoy such an intimate experience with this enigma of a man.