Report: Primus Live in Silver Spring

 

September
24 at the Fillmore in Silver Spring, MD, the Les Claypool Experience served up
their new album in its entirety, plus a sprinkling of old faves.


By Evan Haga

You can blame cell phones, the Internet or any
other attention-sucking technology, but the fact remains that chops in
commercially successful rock have taken a nosedive over the past two decades.
When the San Francisco-rooted trio Primus made its ascent in the early to
mid-1990s, chart-topping rock meant guitarists like Mike McCready and John
Frusciante – players with real guitar-shop-clerk skills. In today’s world of
overblown anthems and melodramatic banjo bashing, there aren’t too many licks
worth copping.

 

Primus, fronted by the singer and bass guitarist
Les Claypool, was the most unabashedly chopsy, in that you couldn’t mention the
band without discussing Claypool’s astounding slap- and fingerstyle bass
technique. But the band eventually became a hit because alt-rock was a valuable
entity and Claypool’s circus trickery served interesting, aesthetically focused
music: Crazed, prog-ish, psychedelic hard rock and funk that didn’t so much
groove as stomp and trundle forward. Claypool’s bass held center stage as
guitarist Larry LaLonde’s careening guitar solos, which fell somewhere between
thrash metal, Zappa, Hendrix and Greg Ginn, provided near-constant chaotic
atmosphere. But the real hook lied in the songs’ sense of humor, which was
directly descended from Zappa: more wry and bewildering than actually funny,
often seemingly indeterminate but laced with political and satirical barbs.
(And you shouldn’t underestimate the giggle factor of Claypool’s singing voice,
a sort of NorCal-yokel holler.)

 

At a recent sold-out show at the controversial
yet superb new Fillmore venue in Silver Spring, Md., Primus seemed unchanged from those
heady days two decades back – as did its audience: kind of rockin’, kind of
hippie-ish and fairly druggie, much like Ween’s crowd but a few degrees less
weird. There was good reason for the band’s fine form: They’ve kept going
pretty consistently since forming in the mid-1980s, save for some years of
hiatus during the 2000s, during which time Claypool took a logical step into
the jam-band scene. But because they hadn’t released a new album since the late
’90s, their touring during the second half of the aughts was overcast with
nostalgia; not anymore, as the band released a rock-solid new studio LP in
September called Green Naugahyde. In Maryland, as on all
stops on their current tour, they played all of it, in order.

 

The Green
Naugahyde
performance was the second half of an extremely well-designed
three-hour show (with intermission) that felt much shorter, despite the
elastic, improvisational detours that swept through a lot of it. The stage set –
psychedelic projections book-ended by giant astronauts with restless faces – was
familiar, but the band’s calling-card songs – “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,”
“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” “Tommy the Cat” – didn’t make the cut. Not that
anyone noticeably cared; Primus has more to do with texture and ability and owning a wholly unique sound. In the first set
that sound arrived via stompers like “To Defy the Laws of Tradition,” “John the
Fisherman” and “Southbound Pachyderm”; the spooky, restrained, march-like funk
of “My Name Is Mud,” and the set-closing blowout “Harold of the Rocks.”

 

“Harold,” off 1990’s Frizzle Fry, foreshadowed the new stuff in set two: Outsider
funk-rock that’s crazy and prankish yet locked-in tight rhythmically – symbolic
of when the ’80s collided with the ’90s in that Faith No More sort of way.
Along with a fair share of throwaway oddities, the groove-driven tunes were as
strong as anything in the first set: the totally danceable “Tragedy’s
A’Comin’,” the prog-rock arpeggiations and lyrical wake-up call of “Jilly’s on
Smack” and the nutty hillbilly dosado of “Lee Van Cleef.”

 

Still, material is always secondary with Primus;
the band’s the thing here. Claypool, always way high in the mix, took Larry
Graham’s work to head-scratching levels of virtuosity, per usual. But he also
bowed otherworldly arco lines on his upright, and turned remarkably guitar-like
during some of the solo sections, weaving in and around LaLonde with melodic
and harmonic smarts and effortless facility. (He’s always doing a lot, but it
never looks that way.) Recently rejoined drummer Jay Lane held down the funk and became a
prog-rock colorist when he needed to. LaLonde, probably the best player out
there who is only the second most important person in a power trio, went from
hard-rock-Garcia mode to certified shredder to something more angular and
flinty and of his own devising. In all, Primus made you feel like you’d seen
something special, something that no one else was capable of doing.

 

 

 

 

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