By Robert Nevel
Last night started getting strange even before Primus took the stage. As the lights went down, creepy circus-like music emanated from the PA. On that stage sat the heavy-psychedelic-funk trio’s equipment in front of a drawn curtain. Suspense filled The Fillmore.
Then they started playing. First came a set of old favorites starting with “American Life” from their breakout 1991 album “Sailing the Seas of Cheese”. Larry LaLonde wrangled twisted, dissonant sounds from his sunburst telecaster as drummer Tim Alexander calmly thumped away on his kit, outfitted with a variety of toms. There was no doubt that he has recovered fully from his recent heart attack. He commanded his kit with powerful hits and flawless transitions.
All the while, legendary bassist and vocalist Les Claypool led the way in an all black outfit complete with sunglasses and top hat. He also wielded his sense of humor. A few songs in, he greeted the crowd saying, “Tonight, we are here to experience…something. That’s it in a nutshell.”
Then they launched into “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” and the crowd immediately began bouncing along. Even later when he botched a song, he played it off saying that these songs are not easy to play – being that they’re Primus tunes.
Claypool even sported a pig mask and bowed his upright for a portion of the set including a lengthy psychedelic excursion. Attached to each song seemed to be a foot-stomping jam where each member would take an impressive solo to the crowd’s delight.
Being Primus, the night was already strange. The songs were strange, the lyrics were strange. Claypool looked strange. But nothing could amount to what happened after a short intermission. When the lights dimmed again and the weird circus music swelled, it was time for Primus’s interpretation of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” The curtains were drawn and they proceeded to play the entirety of their latest release, Primus and the Chocolate Factory.
There were factory windows lining the top of a set piece backdrop. Large phallic amanita mushrooms sat on the sides of the stage. A horse’s head stared blankly situated randomly behind Claypool. Behind Claypool there was a multi-percussionist in a deranged baby-esque mask (Mike Dillon) and behind LaLonde sat a cellist in a similar baby-esque mask (Sam Bass). LaLonde sported all black with a bow tie, and Alexander wore an all white body suit with goggles on his forehead akin to the TV scene from the original Willy Wonka film. He had an addition to his kit of a large bass drum and a few extras, all in white shells.
Claypool made an impeccably warped Wonka. He wore a purple jacket and orange wig, with a gray top hat. He slapped and pounded on his acoustic steel-bodied bass while singing the songs from everyone’s childhood and twisting them into the creepiest possible versions ever. “Cheer Up, Charlie” was transformed from a lamenting ballad into a squirmy, creepy meditation on the original melody. It seemed to be like that the whole time, until the cello came in with a delicate lead part adding beauty to the freak show.
The audience got excited every time Mike Dillon started shredding on the marimba and Sam Bass would branch out higher on the cello’s range. Then in a rare moment, Larry LaLonde took to the mic singing spoiled girl Veruca Salt’s song “I Want It Now.” His voice worked perfectly as a counterpoint to Claypool’s southern tinged tone and it added a dramatic effect. It seemed like there were some other characters.
The audience’s enthusiasm added to the show. One excited fan shouted between songs, “Do it for Charlie!” It sounded like a theater extra hollering during a play.
The biggest crowd pleasers, though, were the Oompa Loompas. After almost every song, Alexander would begin a pounding beat that signaled the entrance of orange and green fellows from either side of the stage. Their heads were huge. While the band played, they would do a little up and down dance until their song was over, then depart until the next time.
They reprised “Pure Imagination” at the end, with LaLonde playing a slide bit that was one of the prettiest things to happen all night. With that, the band exited the stage at the end of their Chocolate Factory performance. Then came a few more classics (“Here Come the Bastards” and “Too Many Puppies” were standouts) accompanied by collage videos and a jam culminating in the return of percussion and cello.
The show was over. They left the stage and they left the audience dumbstruck. The production was everything it promised to be. Certainly one of the oddest nights of music and fun the Fillmore has ever seen and ever will see. Willy Wonka would be proud.