June 8, 2011 10:04

New Primus sucks just as much as old Primus

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 Primus’ Les Claypol, incognito in monkey mask and pinstripes. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

If there are people who deny the moon landing simply because they can’t fully comprehend such an occurrence, they might as well say the same about Les Claypool’s bass playing. The way in which he thumps and plucks through thrash, funk and metal with such effortless precision is simply unfathomable. Even when he dedicated much of the last few years to his more carnivalesque creations with his Fancy Band, a somewhat unwieldy product of his jam-scene explorations after an early 2000s hiatus from Primus, his technique was breathtaking to behold. Now, the Three Men of Extreme Power are back to rile up the base with their lengthiest tour in eight years and some curious new tunes to boot.

It has to be noted that optimal enjoyment of a band like Primus comes via the traditional environs of a punk or metal show: The more uncomfortable the proximity to your neighbor, the better.

The oddity of Primus as a shared experience is at its most effective a visceral one — big, open spaces with ugly, sweaty, possibly mud-covered people all around you that feign epileptic seizure the moment Larry “Ler” LaLonde squirrels into a solo. Les might call Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium a bit “fancy” for his tastes, with its tiered seating and off-Broadway ambiance. But Primus is also a theater of the mind, and amidst rallying cried of “Primus sucks!” their May 31 show left plenty to the imagination. Like for instance, how good would Primus sound is only they’d turn Ler’s guitar up a little bit more? Aside from his mind-bending loungepunk bridge in opener “Harold On the Rocks,” one of the most unsung axe-slingers in rock music remained just that for much of the show. Primus’ set was heavy on new material from Green Naugahyde, their first release since 1999’s Antipop, but having Ler so low in the mix made it hard to distinguish those songs from some of Claypool’s solo stuff. “Pie In the Sky” sounded a lot like Claypool’s “Of Fungi and Foe” with its top-heavy groove, the fidgety vibes on “The Last Salmon Man” riffed on “What Would Sir George Martin Do,” and even “Jilly’s On Smack” had Ler playing a Buckethead-approved horror flick score. Still, the show was, in a word, awesome. Openers the Dead Kenny G’s played like they put Plas Johnson, John Zorn and Fat Mike in a blender and guzzled them down, while splattering the result all over their jumpsuits. They paid homage to both ends of their portmanteau’d namesake, first with with an ultra cheesy duet between frontman Skerik on tenor and bassist Brad Houser on baritone sax, the teased-out wigs they donned to obscure their faces and a frenetic instrumental cover of the Dead Kennedy’s “Kill the Poor.” Much to the chagrin of most in the house, Skerik never made his way out for a jam with the headliners. This tour marked the return of long-time Bob Weir drummer Jay Lane to the skins, a post he hasn’t held for Primus since briefly in 1988 and in a way, the band’s overarching sound seems to be reaching out to that time. The set list came mosh-pit ready, with a heavy selection of songs from the doomier Primus days of Frizzle Fry with spurts of instrumental chaos dotting the title track. The redneck dementia of “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” was covered with staples “Jerry Was a Racecar Driver” and “Those Damned Blue Collar Tweakers,” even breaking out the queasy funk of rarity “Bob” from Pork Soda.

Visually, the stage accoutrement was toned down from the Hallucino-Genetics tour, with the giant, peering eyeballs of 2004 replaced with a pair of astronauts from deep within MTV’s storage bunker that flickered images of Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz during the intro. You had to squint to see the creepy video clips that including kids playing with Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots and vintage MTV Video Award footage streaming from their helmets, but Claypool was plenty unnerving in his monkey mask while bashing on his one-stringed Whamola.

Claypool tipped his bowler as he walked offstage after “Southbound Pachyderm,” the relatively quick show’s lone encore. It was still hugely satisfying for those who’ve waited patiently for years for some new Primus, but the show’s throwback vibe made it feel almost like the band hadn’t ever gone anywhere.

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