Here the bastards came.
And yes, they sucked.
Workers had already started prepping the Nautica Complex for Marc’s Great American Rib Cook-Off this Memorial Weekend by Thursday afternoon—but first Jacob’s Pavilion had to play host to the three-ring musical circus called Primus.
Fans know the inside jokes: How the San Francisco-based trio “sucks,” and has a penchant for odd tunes about bastards, dipshits, miscreants, and assorted oddballs.
And fish. Lots of fish.
The band’s “classic” lineup came together as the ‘80s rolled into the ’90s, back when hair metal was huge and grunge hadn’t conquered the globe just yet. So there was plenty of room on the scene for something different, no matter how weird. Primus took advantage, luring listeners with springy slap ‘n’ pop bass grooves, buzzing guitars, and kinetic karate drums. They also took advantage of MTV exposure, playing up their Zappa / Beefheart-meet-Van Halen sonic approach and Hee Haw versus Dr. Who fashion sensibilities on popular videos with Claymation creatures and stop-motion monsters. 1990’s Frizzle Fry put the band on the map—but it was the 1991 follow-up, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, that truly suggested the band meant business.
Funny business, that is.
Apart from being a virtuoso bassist, author, and entrepreneurial winemaker, front-man / singer-bassist Les Claypool enjoys fly-fishing. The band’s last album, 2011’s Green Naugahyde, contains more cantos en homage to the phylum Chordata, but Claypool embraced nautical themes as early as the late 1980s, when the then-unsigned band cut an independent live album (Suck on This) documenting its incendiary shows in Berkeley.
Naugahyde was a while ago—and band’s prior full-length studio disc, Antipop, dropped in 1999. But that doesn’t mean the boys weren’t busy in the 2000s. Claypool joined forced with drummer Stewart Copeland (The Police) and guitarist Trey Anastasio (Phish) in short-lived super-group Oysterhead and headed up The Fearless Flying Frog Brigade with other musicians (including old-school Primus alumni Todd Huth and Jay Lane). The bassist also cut a pair of solo albums (Of Whales and Woe, Of Fungi and Foe), directed his first film (Electric Apricot), and cranked out another book (South of The Pumphouse) during Primus’ downtime. Claypool’s recent countrified collaboration with Bryan Kehoe—Duo De Twang—brought him to Kent, Ohio for a gig earlier this year.
Thursday’s Primus set featured an obligatory sampling of its seaward songs (“John The Fisherman”), but the guys also served up a smorgasbord of zingers and back-tracks not related to food (or the people responsible who prepare it). Looking dapper in his granny specs, bowler, and jacket, the pony-tailed Claypool strapped on a Thompson four-string and propped up a leg for opener “Groundhog’s Day,” sing-scatting into his two-pronged mic (one for his main, megaphone-like vocals and another for clean / speaking vocals). Newer track “Moron TV” critiqued idiot box culture as Thunderbirds-like marionettes flickered on an LCD backdrop (the screen sandwiched between a pair of inflated astronauts). LaLonde coaxed Andy Summers-eqsque reggae chords over Claypool’s rubber band bass and lyrics—which sent up television pop stars, presidents—and daft commercials for grooming products.
“Here we are once again!” greeted Claypool. “It’s daunting staring down Cleveland in the eye!”
But—as the bassist observed—it wouldn’t have been a Cleveland Primus show without a concertgoer in a banana suit (we also spotted a penguin costume in the audience).
“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”—a fan favorite from 1995’s Tales From The Punch Bowl—came sooner than expected, but got the revelers down front moving to Claypool’s elastic grooves. A menacing “American Life” pitted Claypool’s spiraling bass trills with Thompson’s loping drums and LaLonde’s atmospheric Stratocaster swells, sirens, and harmonic squelches. “Over the Falls” was accompanied by black and white video footage of a daredevil constructing a custom barrel for Niagara plunge.
The fellows got Cowboy-crazy mid-set, pairing Naugahyde’s “Lee Van Cleef” with Frizzle Fry’s “Spegetti Western.” Where the former tune saluted the mustachioed actor who appeared with Clint Eastwood (often as the black-hatted villain)in old Sergio Leone pictures like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, the latter lambasted losers who channel surf between skin flicks and Laurel & Hardy shorts in the dead of night. Quirky Pork Soda cut “Bob” spoke to suicides and Doc Marten shoes.
“My Name is Mud” rekindled interest: The 1993 single (about a “son-o-bitch” drunk who kisses his tormentor “upside the cranium with an aluminum baseball bat”) packed more pogoing bass and ethereal guitar work, and saw Claypool doing his signature circle-dance when not singing. Junkie lament “Jilly’s On Smack” kept the pace.
With the exception of the video screen and space men sentinels, the pavilion stage wasn’t well-illuminated; Claypool and LaLonde were little more than dark silhouettes when viewed from the bleacher sections. Thompson was completely obscured behind his toms and cymbals. We’re guessing many spectators, like us, focused on whatever visuals emitted from the big screen—or stopped watching entirely and just absorbed the music. The riverfront was charged with (ahem) a certain fragrant, mood-lightening aroma throughout the show.
Kind of a shame, though. Primus’ instrumental prowess should be seen as well as heard, but the shadows weren’t conducive for any close inspection of fret boards and finger placement. The jam sessions ran a bit long, too: Every measure of up-tempo, thumb-smacking rhythmic fury was seemingly offset by a dirge-like detour, dissonant passage, or wayward noise-scape not heard on record. Like Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Reeves Gabrels (David Bowie), LaLonde’s a master manipulator of sound who employs both sleight-of-hand and guitar effects gear to sculpt trance-like tones (“Southbound Pachyderm,” “Harold on the Rocks”). His “Frippertronics” would’ve been cooler had we actually been able to see him make them.
No “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” or “Tommy the Cat” tonight, but the encore offered another Seas of Cheese crowd-pleaser in “Here Come the Bastards.”
Opening act Beats Antique lived up to its name by synthesizing exotic and otherworldly percussion with throwback theatre and stagecraft. The Oakland act mesmerized early arrivers with a unique kind of “rock” wherein the music—half live and half “canned” / pre-programmed—provided a soundtrack to which belly dancer Zoe Jakes strutted her stuff. Like a hybrid geisha girl / bawdy burlesque starlet, Jakes donned a slithery snake-like dress and moved in slow-motion (evoking Japanese Odori / Mai dancers), then wore a skimpy two-piece and shook a feathery fan like a vaudevillian “flapper.”
Drummer Dave Cappel executed African and Indian tribal rhythms on what appeared to be a fairly standard kit) as utility man Dave Satori played auxiliary percussion, fiddle, electric banjo / Kyoto, and horns. Both men dabbled on keyboards or triggered samples during the 45-minute set, augmenting the mix with cartoon clarinets and trumpets associated more with big band, boogie-woogie, and Depression-era jazz than today’s rock ‘n’ roll. Projected onscreen were kaleidoscopic images of animals, paper dragons, and Hamsa symbols, like the Hand of Fatima, all strengthening the impression of being in China, Lebanon, or Morocco.
The troupe concluded (it wouldn’t be accurate to say “winded down”) with a percolating number featuring two female dancers, bass drums, and an undulating blow-up creature. Snippets of “robot” Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis looped on the video screen, underscoring the primal vs. mechanical dichotomy of dance—and making fans wonder yet again whether they were living in the 21st Century, or reliving 1921.