In Northern California, Les Claypool and New Year’s Eve are intrinsically connected. For over 20 years, the lauded bass player and singer has celebrated the holiday at a variety of venues in and around the Bay Area with exuberant and unpredictable performances that appeal to long-time devotees and curiosity-seekers alike. More often than not, these evenings are headlined by Mr. Claypool’s most renowned musical project, Primus, and in recent years unique and creative themes have provided a framework for the festivities. To mark the end of 2013, Les, guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde, drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander and a handful of special guests would take this concept a step further by presenting a full rendition of the soundtrack to the kaleidoscopic 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory alongside a selection of energetic, buoyant and idiosyncratic songs from Primus’ diverse catalog.
This was my eighth New Year’s Eve spent with Les and Co. and although I’ve seen his myriad groups over 100 times since 1995, this was only the second Primus NYE I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. Last year’s show at The Warfield was a titanic highlight as the theater was transformed into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory and all sorts of horror-infused sonic mischief transpired leading up to and after the midnight hour. It was a tall order to match that night’s intensity, but these mighty men were up to the task and the result was a success, though perhaps a more reserved and cerebral one compared to more raucous past engagements.
The surprising return of Tim Alexander to the fold was reason enough to put forth effort and travel to The Fox Theater in Oakland. While Tim is the drummer on a majority of their studio recordings, he had not played with Primus since 2008 as Jay Lane manned the kit from 2010 through summer 2013. Although the Jay Lane-era resuscitated the trio from a period of stagnancy and added quite a few never played or infrequently heard songs to the setlists, Tim’s crisp and often pummeling style remains a personal favorite when meshed with Les’ percolating, groovy bass lines and Ler’s angular riffs and rhythms. Add to this auditory justification the fact that I had never set foot in The Fox Theater, a gorgeous building, renovated, remodeled and re-opened in early 2009 and it seemed a perfect fit for this Southern Californian to make the approximately 400 mile trek.
Walking into the ornate surroundings on a plush carpet, the mood was a fun and friendly one, finding the audience in high spirits as the start to the show was rapidly approaching. Lines for the merchandise stand were long as fans patiently waited for commemorative t-shirts, posters or one of four chocolate bars specially made by Asher’s Chocolates in Pennsylvania with names like Professor Nutbutter, Mr. Krinkle or Bastard Bar, in reference to a few of the band’s song titles. Smaller bite size pieces of the Primus Bar were complimentary at stations in the lobby that also stocked other Willy Wonka sweets. If nothing else, the crowd would surely have a sugar high to sustain them throughout, though many packed the bars for liquid refreshments as well.
Primus took the stage shortly after the printed start time of 9:30 pm for an hour-long first set that contained tracks from almost all their albums. It was a seamless re-integration into the unit for Tim as the weeks spent rehearsing paid off; the band sounded tight and well-oiled on tracks such as “Groundhog’s Day” and “Over the Electric Grapevine” and nodded to their formative days by performing under a backdrop of the Suck On This album cover art and delivering the opening cut, “John the Fisherman” preceded by a brief jam on “YYZ” by Rush. Old and new school merged as Green Naugahyde songs “Lee Van Cleef” and “Jilly’s on Smack” were played by Les on his Dobro and upright basses, respectively. The curtain closed after “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and a change over began for the cover performance that would usher in 2014.
Set decoration for the Willy Wonka portion was impeccable as inflatable mushrooms flanked the performers while lollipops and other confections dotted the stage. A screen behind the musicians showed psychedelic, distorted clips from the movie as Primus was joined for the second set by Frog Brigade cohorts Skerik on saxophone and percussionist Mike Dillon on marimba. Their contributions added texture and filled out the sound for an interpretation of this unorthodox soundtrack. Given Primus’ track record for unusual and impossible-to-categorize songs, this should have been a home run, a slam dunk of a New Year’s Eve concert. Songs like “(I’ve Got A) Golden Ticket” and “I Want It Now” (with Larry Lalonde on vocals!) possessed undeniable energy and prodded the subdued crowd effectively but most of the set was rather low tempo and, frankly, lurched along. Costumed Oompa Loompas made an appearance during each of the four titular interludes towards the end of the album to liven up things visually, but as the 55 minute experiment transpired, it became abundantly clear that the pace wouldn’t pick up in earnest until the Primus songs resumed after midnight. It was a brave and bold choice for the band to take us on “The Wondrous Boat Ride,” I just wish it has been a more progressive and less sedate journey. Following the requisite countdown and balloon drop, things kicked back into a higher gear with “Here Come the Bastards” also featuring the pair of guests, but it wasn’t until the jam portion of “Southbound Pachyderm” that my blood really started flowing again. The long and laborious set wrapped with a classic “Harold of the Rocks” that showed the musical interplay between Les and Larry continues to grow and evolve as the intertwining, improvisational guitar parts in the bluesy instrumental middle section can be likened to an old married couple with the ability to complete each other’s sentences while the zany lyrics and erratic song structure still managed to resonate.
The double encore that Primus gifted us with on the holiday was a bit of a mixed bag, starting with a splendid “Dutchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread” with all the performers first soloing individually then in unison for what was perhaps the best collective moment of the show. The final song choice defaulted to one of their most popular: “My Name is Mud.” Undoubtedly a crowd favorite, it unfortunately didn’t offer any distinction and concluded the night on a neutral note. This was a lackluster finale to a concert that started with fire in its belly, only to ebb and flow to its termination with a few distinct highlights along the way. The evening’s events in no way deter me from seeing Primus on New Year’s Eve (or any other night) again. I welcome their adventurous spirit and prefer it to a standard, as expected, set as many artists might craft for their audience ahead of a pressure-filled affair such as this. It is my hope that Tim’s continued involvement in this ever maturing incarnation of Primus results in the band touching upon many more different and obscure songs that stimulate and befit his considerable talents. The future of Primus remains bright and I eagerly anticipate following them into whatever fairytale or cartoon-inspired realm they decide to occupy next.
12/31/13 – The Fox Theater – Oakland, CA
Set 1: YYZ (intro) > John the Fisherman , Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers, Groundhog’s Day, Over the Falls , Lee Van Cleef, Jilly’s On Smack, Mr. Krinkle , Over the Electric Grapevine , Jerry Was a Race Car Driver
Set 2: Main Title*, The Candy Man*, Cheer Up, Charlie*, (I’ve Got A) Golden Ticket*, Pure Imagination* , Oompa Loompa #1*, The Wondrous Boat Ride* , Oompa Loompa #2*, I Want It Now*@, Oompa Loompa #3* , Wonkamobile, Wonkavision* , Oompa Loompa #4*, End Title (Pure Imagination)*, NYE Countdown , Here Come the Bastards* , Southbound Pachyderm , Harold of the Rocks
Encore : Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread* , My Name is Mud
* – with Skerik and Mike Dillon
@ – with Larry LaLonde on vocals