Some will insist that it’s cheating, but Buckethead has been toting around a cache of pre-recorded tracks on tour in lieu of actual musicians for longer than almost anybody, and now the market is glutted with one-man bands. Most of these, including the two artists who opened for Buckethead at the Barrymore, utilize a sample-and-loop system to create their own backing tracks onstage, which is ostensibly more authentically “live” than canned backing tracks, but let’s face it, we go to a Bucket show for two reasons: to watch him perform, and to hear him wail. Anything else is just the means for him to keep the beat.
Still, it’s courteous to check out the opening acts with an open mind. I’m not overly familiar with Drums & Tuba. I saw them once years ago and I remember passively enjoying the set. Tonight’s first set was from Wolff, the “Tuba” half of D&T, and he was quite entertaining for the first couple of songs. But it didn’t take long to see that the tuba itself was little more than a prop. There was one brief moment, during an attempt to get some static interference from the sound system under control, when you could discern the sound of a tuba, but the rest of Wolff’s layered samples, though expertly crafted into danceable beats, could’ve been made without the analog instrument, and it all began to sound pretty much the same by the end. There are thousands of hippies out there following in the footsteps of Keller Williams, mastering the looping process so they can tour without having to split the proceeds amongst an actual band, and Wolff does little to set himself apart from the rest of them; he just looks more uncomfortable up there with that big tuba strapped to his chest. It’s obvious what he’s going for, but the Buckethead of the tuba he is not.
Heatbox pulled off a much more entertaining set, however. The most encouraging thing is how much the guy sucked just two years ago. Rather than bring any instruments, he just uses his voice and plenty of effects to mimic instruments; obviously, percussion more than anything else, but he pulled off a couple of impressive “guitar” solos, in addition to some competent, soulful singing. Purely as a beatboxer, Heatbox is good but not great. Same goes for his singing. But his creative and eclectic use of vocals, effects and loops add up to a really fun performance, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He doesn’t try to be anything other than a party-starter, and he will definitely get booties shakin’.
Buckethead is an anomaly amongst performers and musicians, and while every day brings more evidence of his growing influence on the guitar landscape of today, nobody has really even tried to emulate his persona or his stage show; that would be pointless. And while every performance of his that I’ve witnessed has featured something new to stun me, I’d seen him in May and was a bit underwhelmed. It was the sloppiest I’ve ever seen him play, and there were elements of the show that were little more than retreads of past ideas. It was enough to make me fear that he was finally losing a step after at least twenty years of being the greatest guitarist on Earth. I guess it’s pretty much inevitable that some day the mystique will dissipate, the bucket and mask will be removed, and a mere mortal will be revealed beneath. That day has not yet come, though.
From the opening strains of perennial favorite “Night Of The Slunk”, I felt I was witnessing a revitalized Buckethead. His very first solo was an absolute scorcher, even though he has probably played the song at every show for the past ten years and could easily phone it in. Without any facial expressions to bolster/hinder the mood, you can only attempt to imagine the many emotions lurking behind the guitar, but you definitely get the impression that this is a man supremely in control of his faculties. He has been known to walk off the stage in frustration when he or someone in the crew isn’t performing up to par, but tonight, aside from one horror-masked foam bust refusing to stay upright, everything seemed to be flowing without a hitch.
Most artists in the solo-heavy-guitar-instrumental vein become purely interested in showing off as they get older. Hell, most of them seem only interested in dispassionate, speed-obsessed noodling to begin with. Buckethead turns this paradigm on its head by revealing no visual emotion, yet evoking humor, anger, fear, and pure longing through his music itself. His virtuosity is only a part of what draws fans to his shows. His devotion to peculiar niches of pop culture, such as campy horror, anime, basketball superheroes, and martial arts, and his associations with varied and widely respected artists operating distinctly outside the mainstream, all add to the legend. But even disregarding these fringe eccentricities, and beyond his technical dexterity, he has a unique ability to write concise, powerful riffs and melodies and combine them into subversive yet undeniably catchy songs, and with a prolificacy that seems superhuman (2007 alone saw the release of at least 21 albums’ worth of new original music).
So how on Earth does he choose what to play live? He may not have any top 40 hits, but there are staples, such as the aforementioned “Slunk”, from his most popular album, 1999’s Monsters And Robots. And he almost always allows for some material from his debut, ending tonight’s show with the classic “Welcome To Bucketheadland”. Still, while he has eschewed many albums entirely in the past (2005’s Kaleidoscalp, for instance, has been criminally overlooked), he has been pulling out plenty of new material this year, dropping songs from the setlist that had been essentials (no “Want Some Slaw?”, “Botnus”, “Stick Pit”, or anything from Colma??). As a longtime fan, though, it’s easy to forget that his cult has only grown in the past ten years, and a lot of relatively new songs are already regarded as classics. The Guitar Hero generation now holds “Jordan” in high esteem, and rightly so; it has become a bit scripted recently, but it’s still one of his choicest cuts. “Lebron” is another trademark aching epic, only just released on record but a centerpiece of the live set for quite some time. “Soothsayer”, from 2006’s Crime Slunk Scene, has usurped “Nottingham Lace” as the big rock-star closer, and tonight’s rendition blew away the one I’d seen at Summer Camp. 2009 has also seen the demise of “Jowls”; the start/stop smorgasbord has been replaced by “The Embalmer”, not really an evolution but a heavier, slightly more modern cousin.
One of the best things about the show is that he has stubbornly held onto a couple of my favorites from recent years that could easily have gone by the wayside: “Fountains Of The Forgotten”, from 2004’s The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell, and “Ghost Host”, from 2007’s Decoding The Tomb Of Bansheebot, are snapshots from possibly Buckethead’s two most important albums of the decade, and they remain monuments of his evolving stylistic arc. Even more promising, though, were the brand new, unreleased songs, which rescued the set from its one low point, the self-cannibalization of “Siege Engine”, which dragged on way too long. Buckethead is a master of many more genres than you’ll ever see him play live these days (will he ever bring out an acoustic guitar again?), but at the age of 40, he is still finding ways to shock his audience with new sounds and techniques, presenting us with even more examples of shit that only he can do. It’s why I keep coming back; I’m almost guaranteed to be blown away by something that I have never seen or heard anyone do before.
Of course, I also keep coming back for the dazzling physical displays. Besides watching his impossibly long fingers running up and down the frets, there’s the nunchaku performance, and his incredible robot dance, which he peppered throughout the set tonight more than I’d ever seen before, performing at least one whole song in robot mode; it was utterly captivating. And of course, if you have a mind to get close to the stage, you’re likely to get handed a toy from Buckethead’s bag of tricks (many fans return the favor as well).
When you add up the many unique highlights of a Buckethead show, there is truly something to impress anyone. And tonight, even if you didn’t know a single Buckethead song, you had to love the supersonic rendition of “Smooth Criminal”, from one of Bucket’s avowed idols (take a trip to bucketheadland.com to hear his loving Michael Jackson tribute, “The Homing Beacon”), or the killer Hendrix jam late in the set (I believe it was based on “Machine Gun”). You can generally count on at least a taste of Jimi or Zeppelin in a Buckethead set, and nothing could be more appropriate; in the pantheon of rock and roll electric guitarists, you’ve got Hendrix, you’ve got Page, and you’ve got Buckethead, and then everybody else.