Les Claypool is a bigger Pink Floyd fan than me. He was covering “In The Flesh?” with Primus back in the ‘80s before I even knew he existed. At the first Primus headlining show I went to (Riverside Theater, 1995), they were in the middle of a chaotic “Tommy The Cat” jam when the whole band slipped like magic into “Money” for a few bars. And my first three (Colonel) Claypool’s (Fearless) (Flying) Frog Brigade shows featured epic takes on “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”. Now, the reunited band, which boasts none other than Harry Waters (son of Roger) on keys and vocals, is doing the ANIMALS album in its entirety, every night.
Enough already? It was cool seeing this at the Salt Shed back in July, but I was hoping that the fall tour—The Hunt For Green October, as it’s dubbed—would be more Frogs, less Floyd. Truth be told, if I were ranking Pink Floyd albums, ANIMALS would be near the bottom. (Obviously not counting any post-Roger Waters albums because those don’t count.)
So, I hope Wednesday was the last time I’ll ever see that album live, but if the Frog Brigade comes around in this same format again next year, it…won’t have been. And to think, if saxophonist Skerik hadn’t been forced to skip the first reunion tour due to injury, I probably would’ve skipped this second 2023 Chicago date. None of the guitarists from the group’s original run are taking part; how is it even Frog Brigade without SKERIK?? (The answer, of course: it is whatever Les says it is.)
On the first night of this tour, they played all the Claypool material up front and saved ANIMALS for last—TERRIBLE IDEA, thank god they didn’t keep that up. For the rest of the dates it’s been sandwiched inside thick slabs of Frog, and having a seat in the grandstand this time, I didn’t mind sitting there, taking it in. The Salt Shed is a pretty great-sounding venue and having a slightly elevated view of the stage aided the experience. (Also, can I just say: this is the only venue this size in Chicago with decent beer options! I seriously love the Salt Shed. Fuck Goose Island!!) I was a tad dismayed that they didn’t find a way to involve Skerik in these proceedings; it may be that he needed the break, being perhaps not 100% recovered. Either way, it’s clear that overexposure at a young age contributed to my eventual boredom with ANIMALS; I know these songs on a deep level and this band is very good at playing them.
However, I was there for the other two hours or so of music. I have to salute Les for obviously taking a gander at the setlist he played here in July and only playing four of those songs—the ones they play pretty much every night. Besides, even those ones, now Skerik-ized, played out in radically different ways than last time. It was almost as if Les knew Phish was just in town and wanted to show us that HIS band could do all that crazy psychedelic shit just as well as any hippie band. They opened with “Buzzards Of Greenhill”, barely recognizable at first; it came to its natural ending and then Les counted it back in for a blistering bonus jam. “Up On The Roof” was one I pined for, and I’d swear Sean Ono Lennon was way more aggressive on the guitar overall at this show than on the summer leg, which this song needs. Les asked the crowd if anyone knew how Lennon got his nickname of “Shiner” and was delighted when someone shouted “HIS PERSONALITY”; Lennon was equally amused. “I’ve always had to rely on my personality”, he quipped in true family style.
I hadn’t been looking at setlists, so the cover of The Beat’s “Mirror In The Bathroom” was a choice surprise. This would not have gotten off the ground without the sax. Every night also features a Claypool Lennon Delirium suite; admittedly I’ve never connected deeply with this studio project and have never seen the band live, but I mean, basically now I have; Paulo Baldi, Claypool’s go-to drummer outside of Primus for two decades, was there, so unless you count touring keyboardist João Nogueira, this WAS the Delirium, enhanced! They performed both movements of “Cricket And The Genie” before wrapping up set one with an astounding version of “Cosmic Highway”. The Frog Brigade has historically been a band that mostly trades off individual solos, yet here they were crafting dynamic full-band improv, all trained on quick descending bass cues from Les as the signal to end a particular movement. Quite beyond what I knew this band to be capable of.
There was a brief pause after ANIMALS before Les led the band into “Precipitation”, the only Holy Mackerel song they’d played here in July. Here was one of percussionist Mike Dillon’s shining moments on the vibes, and they kept the Mackerel flowing next with “Hendershot”. After this I yelled out “RUNNING THE GAUNTLET” in desperation; instead they did the Prince Buster cover “One Step Beyond” and then “One Better”, a couple of Fancy Band staples. The latter once again showcased some remarkable group jamming, light years beyond summer versions. Skerik was not getting as wild with effects and noise as I’ve witnessed in years past; still, his energy and his deep synergy with Les couldn’t help but elevate these proceedings and he’s such a quality musician even when he’s playing it relatively straight.
When Paulo started into the distinctive drumbeat of “Tomorrow Never Knows” I didn’t believe it at first. I’m not sure why; this was the final song at my very first Frog Brigade show (Riviera 2001). Back then, the band didn’t feature any sons of Beatles, so it was, y’know, COOL, but it didn’t prepare me for this emotional walloping. Two-thousand-one, that was so long ago. Les was only partially broken free from his Primus idiom; the Frog Brigade still felt like a thrown-together bar band. Over the course of those next couple years, the band did develop its own identity; then in 2003 it was all over, aside from a handful of reunion gigs. Claypool “solo” gigs continued to be a blast, but the Frog aura had burnt out. I started to just wish Les would focus on Primus and forget the rest.
As much as I’m still hoping for a rain-check Oysterhead Chicago appearance some day, I couldn’t care less about Primus at the moment. I want the Frog Brigade to keep going as long as possible. I want to see this band develop more with Skerik in the mix. I want to have more experiences like the psych-rock tidal wave of “Tomorrow Never Knows”.
For the encore, I’ll be damned: “RUNNING THE GAUNTLET”!! This was one of the few Mackerel songs they used to play that I’d never caught. The album version is a minute and a half; I didn’t have my stopwatch out but every member took a solo and I was in absolute bliss. And after this, Harry played the classic piano intro to Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath”!! I’ll never forget, the first day of the first Bonnaroo, in the blazing sun, they played this and it warmed my heart that somebody was still out here willing to play a Tull cover for the kids. The sentiment holds up. And just like at Bonnaroo, they followed with “Whamola” to end the show.
Thinking back on old Claypool gigs, it would be hard to top the show in the Rave basement, whatever it was called back in November of 2002; whatever happened to Dean Johnson, composer of one of the few drum solos I’ve ever witnessed that had me enthralled throughout (part of a 32-minute “2,000 Light Years From Home”). That was the Brigade at the height of its powers. I still wouldn’t say that was a better band than what I saw on Wednesday night. Each iteration had its strengths, but I could see this one going far. As we all know, though, Claypool ensembles are tenuous, and this one played with an urgency that may come partially from that awareness. The future’s uncertain; let’s pack as much intensity as we can into NOW. Solid philosophy.