OK, let’s see: giant inflatable astronauts? Check. A 30-something ex–band camp aficionado red-faced and rocking out on the tuba? Check. Head-banging banjo solos for the 15-year-old shirtless kids to mosh out to? Check. For good measure, let’s add in the relentless chant “Primus sucks!” emanating in perfect unison from an audience where mohawk- laden Slayer disciples and Abercrombie-wearing Dave Matthews buffs can coexist, and you’ll pretty much be convinced that Primus shows are weird.
Touring for the first time since 2004, oddball bass virtuoso Les Claypool has finally taken a break from his recent slew of side projects (Frog Brigade, Oysterhead, C2B3) to resurrect the original lineup of Primus (break out the pork soda, Bobby Cock!) with Larry LaLonde on guitar and Tim Alexander on drums. The band is sweeping across America in two months on the irreverently named “Beat a Dead Horse Tour” promoting their new CD, They Can’t All Be Zingers: The Best of Primus, and their new DVD, Blame It on the Fish. Primus’s show at the Aragon Ballroom was a riveting retrospective on the trio’s career that fused Claypool’s newfound proclivity for extended jams with the old-school Primus catalog, giving a fresh face to songs well over a decade old.
The show’s opener was Drums & Tuba, a trio from New Orleans that played an interesting brand of ambient progressive rock. Sounds typical, right? I mean, every indie-hipster worth his or her weight in Converse and retro fabric these days can go on and on about how “prog rock” is now coming into popular vogue thanks solely to bands like the ever-hip Mars Volta. Anyway, Drums & Tuba was nothing particularly special, and the only thing that set the band apart was their gimmick of the bass lines being played by a guy on, well, a tuba, who looked something like Star Wars’ Jek Porkins dressed up for a golfing outing with his fellow sons of privilege at the nearest $30,000-a-year country club. Regardless, when that corpulent tuba chap threw his band camp inhibitions to the wind and started furiously spinning on the turntables while simultaneously rocking out on his massive horn, I was impressed, and so was the crowd. Drums & Tuba was well received, and they did a great job of breaking in the audience for when the stage lit up and Primus casually sauntered out.
To the trademark chant “Primus sucks!” Les Claypool began thumping away with selections from 1990’s Frizzle Fry, commencing the show with “To Defy the Laws of Tradition,” featuring an extended, and I mean really extended, guitar solo by Larry LaLonde. LaLonde, best known for his extremely tight riffing and intricate scale work, seemed hard pressed to keep up as he feverishly tried to caress a near-eight–minute solo out of his guitar while Les gleefully pumped out backing riff after backing riff on his bass. Claypool, now well known among jam-band aficionados (his 2001 collaboration The Grand Pecking Order with Trey Anastatio of Phish being the most highly revered), seemed at home in this element, but the rest of the band, and the audience, was not. While never really losing the structure of the song, if we can take the progressive dwindling of head banging to be any accurate gauge, Claypool’s trippy musical detour seemed to lose about 90 percent of those in attendance. Still, allowing for more liberal improvisation gave a fresh face to a lot of the songs played and was not, by any means, a bad thing. If anything, Claypool’s readiness to reinterpret his decade-plus old songs demonstrates how he has tangibly matured as a musician outside of Primus.
This tour also heavily featured Primus’s 1991 platinum release, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, with the trio playing several tracks including “American Life” and the ever-popular “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver.” After working the crowd up into a chaotic thrashing frenzy, Claypool judged it was proper time to switch to his upright string bass and delight the horde of screaming fans with flawless renditions of the popular favorites “Seas of Cheese” and Pork Soda’s “Mr. Krinkle.” The band was incredibly tight and, outside of a few forays into overly drawn-out solos, Larry LaLonde’s guitar work formed a perfect complement to Claypool’s heavy rhythmic strumming and nonsensical lyrics. LaLonde, just as at home on banjo as on guitar, gave the Chicago audience a nice surprise in the form of a fingerpickin’ banjo solo that had the comical effect of working the mosh pit into an even more outrageous frenzy. I told you Primus shows were strange, right?
As seems to be characteristic of the ever-taciturn Tim Alexander, the veteran drummer maintained his somber demeanor as he pounded away and kept the band in spot-on time, carrying the fans through an eclectic mix of Primus which even included a special live treat—Claypool singing his theme to South Park while playing pizzicato on his electric upright. As I walked away from the Aragon, I couldn’t help but admire how well Primus’s music has stood the test of time and how remarkably humble Claypool has remained as a musician. After over 15 years, Primus can still tear a venue to pieces, and Claypool still loves every minute of it. As the audience chanted the slogan “Primus sucks!” Claypool blithely responded in his trademark drawl, “You’ll get no argument from me.”