It’s always a good sign when you run into Art Paul Schlosser strumming his guitar and kazooing outside a Madison venue. Although he’s fully silver-bearded now, he seems otherwise not to have aged since the ‘90s when he was unmissable busking on State Street practically every day. Resplendent in tie-dye, Schlosser is easy to misinterpret at first, although he’ll set you straight whether you ask or not: he’s no hippie and you certainly won’t find any pro-drug messages in his songs. Les Claypool, the inimitable frontman of Primus, has dodged similar misconceptions in his day; although he’s not what you’d call a straight-edger, his songs are full of cautionary tales that people often misread, perhaps due to Claypool’s cartoonish vocal delivery and the overall humorous bent of his band. Primus was into irony before it became the default mode of expression for generation x, but hidden inside even the grossest caricatures in Claypool lyrics is a genuine compassion for the downtrodden; surely by now he realizes we are laughing, but he is not.
It’s a good thing to keep in mind now that Primus has rolled out its latest studio release, a three-song EP called Conspiranoid. At eleven-plus minutes, the title track (technically, “Conspiranoia”) is the longest song this band has ever released, somewhat surprising considering the group’s blatant love of epic ‘70s prog. Saturday night at The Sylvee was the seventh date of the 2022 leg of Primus’s A Tribute To Kings tour, which was originally slated to begin in 2020 and we all know what happened. The “tribute” in question: Rush’s A Farewell To Kings album, which Primus plays in its entirety at each show. While the room was obviously full of Primus fans, a sizable older portion of the crowd was clearly there to see a Rush tribute band. It was hard to say if either subset specifically got its wish.
While Les’s dabbling in the jamband scene has led to an expanded proclivity for improv in Primus’s live sets over the years, this isn’t one of those tours, although a highlight of this show’s first set was a seemingly spontaneous detour into Oysterhead’s “Polka Dot Rose” during the jam in “Groundhog’s Day”, although a little research reveals they’ve been dropping that in occasionally since last year when this tour finally began. Easter eggs like this are essential, though, as time is beginning to catch up with these road warriors in certain other respects. Take “Groundhog’s” for example: when they bust into the fast part of this song it’s supposed to be intense; for this performance it wasn’t even fast. Whether rust or age or pandemic exhaustion was to blame, this was the most timidly I’ve ever heard this band play.
Fortunately they’re still super weird and their music is heavy enough intrinsically that it packs a punch even at geriatric speeds. The band has also been digging more deeply into its full catalog for this tour, so while we got mainstays like “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” and “Jerry Was A Racecar Driver”, nuggets like “Duchess And The Proverbial Mind Spread” and “Welcome To This World” (though only a partial rendition) kept us guessing. Then there was “Conspiranoia”, which they’ll most likely play every night of this leg at least. I understand fans’ laments that this somewhat forced multi-part suite gobbles up set time that could be spent on more beloved tunes or improv, but the song actually did work better in the live setting than its recorded version. Part of that was the creepy video accompaniment and part of it was less stilted transitions between sections of the song. You can guess what it’s about; Claypool loves his idiosyncratic character studies, and while the rest of us might find it easy to sit and mock conspiracy-theory junkies, Les’s intent is always to humanize while exposing dark underbellies. While the acoustics of the room, which were somewhat worse than what I’m accustomed to at this venue, weren’t kind to the mess of pre-recorded chatter that overtook the song in the end, the performance itself was absorbing.
Fun fact: my first Primus show was a Rush show, 1994 at the Dane County Coliseum. During “Tweekers” in Primus’s opening set, Les had waxed ecstatic about his own Rush fandom, even playing the “Passage To Bangkok” riff for us after bantering. I was instantly sold on the band; this was a type of humility and human-ness I had never before witnessed in a rock star on a stage. Now, maybe at the time he felt a dire need to win over the crowd amidst a relatively noisy, skronky set of music not suited for classic-rock heads; I took it as a simple acknowledgement that he was just some prog nerd like me.
Actually singing Geddy Lee parts, however, is another story entirely. I had no illusions about the endeavor; while Geddy isn’t exactly the most mellifluous singer as it is, Les is even less so. He didn’t need to give us any kind of mea culpa, even though he did, prior to “Closer To The Heart”; we knew it was gonna be rough, and in fact some of the notes he did manage to hit were shockingly high for such a frog-voiced fellow. My hat is off to him for even attempting this project, not to mention the other two guys (although I did hear grumblings from some of the aged attendees as soon as Les opened his mouth). Fortunately for drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander, Neil Peart (RIP) in 1977 wasn’t yet trying to be the superhuman percussion factory he later became, so his drum parts for this album are fairly achievable by mere mortals. Herb is no metronomic scientist, he’s more of a jazz/punk craftsman, and rather than try to ape Peart, he sounded exactly like himself.
Some would argue that guitarist Ler LaLonde had the least-imposing task; I’d argue he was easily the weakest link tonight, and it pains me to say that. This is a guy who I’ve seen overshadow even a dominant force like Les on his best nights. It’s not as though he was fucking up, and given the unorthodox equipment array in covering Rush (sorry but I’m not a gearhead), fuckups would’ve been forgiveable. It was the Primus songs that suffered most; there just wasn’t any fire in his playing. He pulled off all of Alex Lifeson’s parts perfectly fine and there were spirited moments here and there but overall he played like someone put too much xanax in his prune juice.
Such criticisms are only intended to reach hardcore Primus fans who are accustomed to Ler’s freaky-good potential; an off night for him is still generally a sick night of music. The more painful possibility is that these three guys are well past their, uh, prime, essentially classic rockers themselves, and with waning relevance comes waning fires under asses. None of it mattered when they busted into “Cygnus X-1”. The Kings set wasn’t perfect but nobody could claim their hearts weren’t in it, and with this capstone of the album, a bit of the old Primus fierceness finally burst through, turning an already mind-bending and challenging piece of music into a dynamic barrage, the quieter moments as impressive as the chaotic ones. To me this was the only song that mattered, and I didn’t even need Les to unleash that scream towards the end but he did it by God and it was glorious, and it inspired one of the heartiest “PRIMUS SUCKS” chants I’ve been a part of in an awfully long time.
It’s rare that an encore even factors into the enjoyment of a show; tonight’s was an exception. After a fresh-sounding stomp through “Here Come The Bastards”, Les announced that they were going to play something they’d “never played before in front of other humans”: “Follow The Fool”, the second track off the new EP and one of the heaviest songs they’ve written since 1999’s Antipop album. It was fantastic. And while mainstay “Southbound Pachyderm” has become a relatively scripted jam vehicle the past decade or so, it could never truly disappoint; we’d been starved for improv and with whatever fumes they had remaining, the three undisputed titans of the Primus musical genre took us on one more journey on the back of the elephant.
Primus is scheduled to play the BMO Harris Pavilion in Milwaukee on June 2nd, a date that has already been postponed four times. Should you go? If you’re an old person whose favorite aspect of Rush was the singing of Geddy Lee, nooooooo. If you’re a technical stickler looking to notate every missed note or simplified rhythmic approach, noooooooo. If you’re a young person looking to see what’s hip in the world of underground weirdo punkprogmetal, nooooooooo (although opening act Battles who were fantastic in Madison will also be at this show). If you’re a Primus fan, fuck yes. Thus far, first sets on this tour have been much less predictable than on Primus’s previous play-a-whole-album tours, and chances are you won’t get another chance to hear any decent band play “Cygnus X-1” again in your life. Plus by June I bet they’ll unleash “Erin On The Side Of Caution”, since it seems to be the consensus best-Primus-song-in-decades based on every Primus fan I’ve talked to about it. They’ll be as revved-up and well-oiled by then as they’re liable to get, and plus, all that room for dancing in what we hope is by then tolerable weather.
Hope to see you all there!