I went to the Orpheum on Thursday pretty much blind; all I knew was that Primus would be playing two sets. If you’d told me in advance that I’d be subjected to the new Green Naugahyde in its entirety, I probably would’ve gone in with a bad attitude. Sure, I and the rest of the Les Claypool geekosphere have been clamoring for new material to freshen up setlists for many years, but just playing the whole new album is gimmicky, likely to be constraining, and, um, I don’t really dig the album very much so far. The main reason: there’s not enough Ler on it. He’s mostly relegated to generic, Andy Summers-style fake reggae and staccato background strumming, frequently drowned out by the bass. It sounds more like a Claypool solo album than Primus. Knowing that the band would at least play a goodly amount from the album, I already had pretty low expectations going in; I just knew I’d be seeing friends I hadn’t seen in too long, and whatever happened, we’d have a blast rocking out to the classics if nothing else. A funny thing happened, though: the new songs became Primus when Primus played them live. Les is an elusive—bordering on aloof—character, definitely not interested in catering to his fans’ wishes or, presumably, anyone else’s. The mystery is part of his allure, but it makes me suspect he’s a control freak, and that’s why he’s so dominant on the album, rather than that Ler couldn’t come up with any better ideas. There were a couple of moments during the Naugahyde set where it seemed like Ler was at a loss for what to do, but for the most part he owned the new tunes. He made them darker and weirder and heavier, collaborating with Claypool, rarely taking a back seat. He turned new songs into new favorite songs.
Since Primus is one of those bands best experienced live anyway, it’s kind of a blessing that the studio album is a bit underwhelming—all the better for tracks like “Eyes Of The Squirrel” and “Jilly’s On Smack” and “HOINFODAMAN” and “Extinction Burst” to blow us away in the proper setting. The fuller band sound combined with some pretty wild, Claypool-led improv made the second set almost as killer as the first. Sure, “The Last Salmon Man” sounds like a cross between “Fisticuffs” and “David Makalaster”, and “Green Ranger” borrows elements of “Del Davis Tree Farm” and “Over The Electric Grapevine”, but every jamband and prog artist who sticks around long enough winds up repeating himself eventually. The miracle is that after a good decade in virtual limbo, Primus has returned with some great new songs and what appears to be a cohesive, fertile direction.
And here’s the kicker: Jay Lane is making a strong case for an Herb-who? situation. I hate to say it, because Tim Alexander is amazing, the quintessential Primus drummer, but after two tours with Jay, I don’t miss Herb. Lane’s improvisational style is more suited to Claypool’s current muse, and besides, it’s debatable as to who is more responsible for the trademark Primus sound; Lane was first, after all. The classics in the first set lacked nothing of their original spark, and several of them (“Eleven”, “Frizzle Fry” and “Mrs. Blaileen” in particular) opened up like rarely before. Claypool’s old fallback, the Floydian “On The Run” motif, turned up first in “Eleven” and then got hyper extended during the encore as well, as “American Life” turned into a techno/funk/metal juggernaut to end the show.
I won’t lie: I won’t be satisfied until more of the never-played tracks from Pork Soda and Tales From The Punchbowl to return to the live show, especially since we know that Jay is capable of pretty much anything. But the state of Primus is much more exciting now than it’s been in many years. The band is definitely different now than in its 90s heyday, but it would be really tough to argue that it’s any less uniquely awesome.