Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On The Quick #2: Primus in Madison, WI, at the Orpheum

Larry Lalonde guitar, Les Claypool bass, Jay Lane (admirably replacing the nonetheless missed Tim “Herb” Alexander) drums. Attended on a whim, for a little nostalgic fun after exploring Wisconsin beforehand (stopped in New Glarus and had a great bite and beer). Primus was a favorite as a kid—used to rush home from school to spend hours learning Herb’s beats.
First set was something of a best-of menagerie, a lot of it from their major label debut Sailing the Seas of Cheese. All systems were go; overall even better than when I’d seen them as a kid. Lalonde, head down over guitar and effect boards that rivaled Jonny Greenwood’s, used such complex techniques as harmonic swells and chicken picking to create uncanny textures atop the songs’ dense thumping rhythms. I’ve heard people say they wish ol’ Larry would “play along” with the band more. Never made sense to me. This would make the songs sound carrion-pecked and skeletal, as Lalonde has always been the trickster element who dances around and over the beast, frightening off the crows. His playing also fleshes out the world in which the beast lumbers, with distant atmospheric sighs, tree-top warblings, and starry-night fret taps. It even occasionally changes the direction of the animal's stride with an impish yank of its tail.
Claypool was Claypool: he slapped, he grooved, he soloed, he crooned nasally (waxed on about dairy products, weed, and fishing), and he whammy-barred thick, distorted chords. He was, as ever, the goofy yet impressive front man. While Lane did a fair job of filling Herb’s shoes with his prog-ish polyrhythms and heavy foot on the one, the only thing to be desired was for him to make it a little less easy looking, to be less diffident and breach Claypool’s rhythmic sovereignty with some fiercer attacks.
Then intermission: vintage Popeye cartoons, a half-hour’s worth. Grainy, black and white, very little dialogue, almost no adherence to what would be considered remotely PC these days—a few gasps from the audience. Quite a treat, actually.

Set two turned out to be a performance of the new album, Green Naugahyde (which I’m ambivalent about), in its entirety. And seeing that at its current rate it appeared the show would run over three hours despite there being no opening act (it in fact clocked in at three and a half hours), I prepared to beat it after a few more songs. After all, it was a long drive back to Chicago. But I got back to Chicago late, very late. That is, I stayed to the end, as it quickly became apparent that the second half of the show was, without exaggeration, bordering on transcendent.
Live, the new material expanded with a life not found on Naugahyde—or on any of their albums, for that matter. The songs were stretched, caressed, lacquered, stripped, and tinkered with until something wholly new emerged, something hypnotic and ghostly and charming without slipping into the oft-indulgent “jam band” category. “Why didn’t they play that on the new album?” I heard many people ask while later shuffling from the venue. Because—I supposed while walking back to the car, past the illuminated capitol building that recently served as the site for so many differing opinions—sometimes a song or story (or pot roast recipe, for that matter) isn’t fully formed upon its creation, isn’t quite ready when it needs to be. Sometimes it takes a few tries or another set of hands (such as being covered by another group—by Dylan’s own admission, plenty of his tunes—or receiving a little advice from a friend or editor—Fitzgerald cut the head off The Sun Also Rises, as did Pound from The Wasteland) before it comes into its own. I was just glad/grateful to get a chance to hear these songs as they found their stride. And for the first time since I was a kid practicing their old tunes on my even older kit, I’ll be searching for bootlegs—perhaps bartering with a copy of Todd Haynes’ Superstar, or a few flasks of my old man’s bathtub gin.
(band photo provided by Jon-Robert McDowell)

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