Primus: Eagles Crematorium 11-18-06
Posted 12/20/2006 by cal
Primus's current tour has been dubbed The Beat A Dead Horse Tour, a designation that really shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with frontman Les Claypool's sarcastic humor. The band has been drawing its setlists exclusively from its pre-millennial back catalogue, and fans are left to hope the tour's moniker refers to this fact and is not an implication that the band itself is worn out and past its prime.
Fears of an impending breakup are not unfounded; Claypool has spent much more time on other bands than on Primus since 2000 or so. And what are fans to think about a greatest hits package (They Can't All Be Zingers) from the self-proclaimed "Antipop?" It's been over two years since the band released any new music (an EP-length collection tacked onto the DVD release Animals Should Not Try To Act Like People), and Claypool seems content to dabble in countless other projects to keep himself busy. So, were we going to witness three aging pranksters going through the motions on all the old favorites, or a true musical extravaganza as only a fully-functional Primus can deliver?
Claypool got things rolling by plunking out "Here Come The Bastards," one of many possible perfect opening songs up the Primal sleeve. It's good to get the crowd chanting right off the bat, even if the venue's atrocious ventilation threatens to suffocate everyone before show's end. Guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde got off a nice squiggly guitar solo before the band settled into a quiet groove and then slammed it home in raging robot fashion. Our journey to the inside world continued with "Frizzle Fry," a slab of frenzied funk crunch cooked to perfection, like the genesis of math punk with a metal edge, disorienting yet invigorating. The sci-fi drone that opened "Those Damned Blue Collar Tweekers" was a momentary breather until the sinister grinding chug of the chorus got the rowdy room jumping. This song also proved to be the vehicle for one of the night's finest improv showcases. LaLonde's guitar playing was monstrous, fluid but hyper, and drummer Tim Alexander propelled the jam to an ecstatic peak before the dust settled into the final verse and the guys tore through the ending. The band was clearly out for exploration tonight.
Possibly the most unusual aspect of the performance was that, for the first time I'd ever witnessed, LaLonde was overshadowing Claypool, who normally dominates every performance due to sheer talent and presence. But Larry was on fire. After positively wailing through "Tweekers," his buzzsaw sway through "Seas Of Cheese" was mesmerizing, followed by some gleeful noodling in the bluegrass funk of "De Anza Jig." Ler could do no wrong, and Les seemed happy to let him work his magic. When three musicians of this caliber play together, no one ever really sinks into the background, but LaLonde was clearly in the spotlight tonight.
Alexander's chance to show off proved to be the show's only disappointment. His precision and power balance Primus on the thin line between conspiracy and chaos like no other drummer could, but his forte is not the drum solo. It was mercifully short, however, and bled into "Eleven," a much-needed resurgence of energy that brought the room back to life in a flash, Claypool taking the reins and the whole band surging forward as a unit. When it was over, Claypool began strumming a simple pattern alone, and everything prior was revealed as preamble. The room went wild as the intro to "Southbound Pachyderm" gurgled through the stacks. The composed song is nothing short of majestic in its own right; following this, the band showed itself to be capable of a collective jamming force that few other groups can match. Alexander's drumming began to grow in all directions. There was an initial full-band charge, then a backing-off. Each member developed a distinct rhythm; they evolved individually and intertwined, attacking each other and then dancing frenetically as one. Melodies were created and destroyed. The climax was both hectic and symbiotic following a thrilling chase, shiver-inducing and immensely satisfying. It couldn't have been written any better.
After "Pachyderm" came a bludgeoning from "Sgt. Baker," and then the real surprise: "Shake Hands With Beef," originally recorded with surrogate drummer Brain for 1997's The Brown Album, from which this lineup had never played a single song prior to this tour. It was a fairly standard version with a rudimentary jam, maybe a bit clunky but lots of fun. The set closed with the ever-popular "Jerry Was A Racecar Driver," and those of us who had been keeping up with the tour's setlists held our breath for a possible encore of "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver," a song Claypool had condemned to the vaults since 1998 but which had been resurrected for this tour. It's a sticking point between fans--some love it, some hate it. After a stellar show like this, no one would have complained (well, I'm sure someone would have), but instead we got "Is It Luck" (complete with "Dueling Banjos" tease), a hyper-punk screech-out that brought the Seas of Cheese tally to seven, out of eleven total songs played.
As "Is It Luck" crashed to a halt, it brought to mind the question, Are they always this good, or did we just get lucky enough to catch them on an inspired night? The live music fanatic knows that it's bands like Primus, who take songs into unknown territory every night, that have the potential to rise highest and fall flattest, but part of the thrill is in that risk. Call it luck if you must, but it's really the energy and communion of artist and audience, the creation and the appreciation that conjure performances like this one and transform a shabby, overpriced, suffocating and usually horrible-sounding venue into a beautiful place for one night. Whatever the future may hold for the band, Primus is not playing like a band on its way out. The set was shorter than fans might be used to, and the newest song played was a decade old, but there was enough energy for most bands to spread over twice the time, and the nice thing about playing music that sounds like no other artist in history is that it never sounds dated. "Tweekers" or "Bastards" could be released today and sound ahead of their time; instead, they were the beginning of a trend that no one else ever caught onto...or maybe, that no one else could keep up with.