Primus make a career-defining statement at the Tower Theater
Primus & The Chocolate Factory | photo by Julie Miller

Primus has nothing to prove to anybody.  They are at a golden point in their career that very few of their 90s contemporaries have been able to reach.  They have paid their dues, crafted a completely unique and totally unmistakable sound, worked tirelessly for years to carve out a loyal cult of a fanbase, and now can essentially expound upon any creative whim they happen to have at any given time.  This point was driven home at their Primus & The Chocolate Factory tour opener at The Tower Theater last Wednesday night.

All the while, they have remained next to impossible to pin down.  Is Primus a jam band?  Well, not really.  Their music is immediate and contains very little meandering.  The unscripted interplay that does take place in their live show is typically confined to a few choice sections and is usually meant to highlight Les Claypool’s otherworldly bass technique, Larry Lalonde’s frenetic, seizure-inducing guitar work, or Tim Alexander’s focused, precise, Clyde-Stubblefield-via-Bill-Bruford approach to heavy funk drumming.  And yet, they appear among the headliners at jam band festivals like SummerCamp and Wakarusa.  Claypool even collaborated with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio for their early 2000’s side project Oysterhead, featuring Stewart Copeland of The Police on drumset.

Okay, so if Primus isn’t quite jammy enough to be a jam band, what are they then?  Nu-metal?  The sort of company the kept in the 90s might have you think so.  As headliners of the 1999 Family Values and Ozzfest tours, they shared the stage with the likes of Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Marilyn Manson.  Fred Durst even produced the band’s ’99 single “Lacquer Head,” and his influence on the track is quite apparent.  But musically, there is a far richer spectrum of influence in Primus’ canon than all that.  There are prog elements reminiscent of Rush and Yes, 4-on-the-floor funk sections that scream “James Brown,” proto-punk Andy Summers-esque guitar lines, the kind of quirky quasi-ska new wave stuff you hear from the British two-tone bands of the 80s.  But it’s all so undeniably…brown.

Yes, that’s it.  Primus is simply brown.  It’s a strange descriptor I have only heard applied to a handful of bands, most notably PA’s native sons Ween, but also things like The Residents and other similarly bizarre bands that don’t quite fit in with any one genre.  It’s certainly not a catch-all, as brown only implies a very specific set of qualities.  Brown is unsettling, harsh, and gritty.  It doesn’t refer to musical style nearly as much as it does to musical presentation.  Brown is almost comically depraved.  It hints at a deeper level of torment in the songwriter than the music itself can convey.

It’s a good time to be brown.

It’s a good time to be Primus.

As the trio took the stage at the Tower on Wednesday night, they embodied the kind of confident swagger that one might not expect from a band on the opening night of a massive touring production.  Then again, Primus has a lot to celebrate right now.  This was the first night of their Primus & the Chocolate Factory tour in support of their new record of the same name.  An ambitious work, the record is meant to be a re-imagining of the music from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.  This show also marked the triumphant return of drummer Tim Alexander, who suffered a heart attack back in July.  His future with the band was uncertain for some time, and during his absence, Danny Carey, the technical drum wizard behind Tool, was tapped as his temporary replacement.

Back once again to its 1990-96 lineup, Primus fittingly made their entrance accompanied by a celebratory pre-recorded orchestral overture.  As the crowd’s thunderous applause and chants of “PRIMUS SUCKS” began to die down, Claypool, dressed to the nines in a pinstripe vest and bowler hat, plucked out the opening notes of “To Defy The Laws of Tradition” and the crowd erupted once again.  The Tower balcony, which was more than 3/4 empty at the beginning of the set, was completely packed by the end of the first song.

“Our drummer is alive!” proclaimed bassist Les Claypool before tearing into “Last Salmon Man,” a cut off of 2011’s Green Naugahyde and the fourth part of the career-spanning “Fisherman Chronicles,” a series of songs centered around Claypool’s favorite pastime.  “Groundhog’s Day,” a Primus setlist staple, was next, and set the pit ablaze as bodies were tossed about and crowd surfers hurled themselves over the barricade.  Seeing that the crowd could use a breather, the band cooled things down a bit with a sludgy take on “Southbound Pachyderm,” which saw a bit of extended melodic interplay between Claypool and Lalonde.

Unlike Lalonde, who switched guitars for just about every song in the first set, Claypool used the same electric bass until this point.  After switching to a resonator bass, he had acquired the necessary twang for Brown Album track “Over The Falls,” whose off-kilter 6/8 swing appeared to have an intoxicating effect on the front rows of the crowd.  As the song concluded, Claypool took a moment to lead the audience in a sing-along version of “P-R-I-M-U-S-S-U-C-K-S” to the tune of the Mickey Mouse Club March.  He remarked on how excited they were to have Alexander back, and how as Lalonde ages, he looks more and more like Johnathan Hillstrand from Deadliest Catch. 

A three-song combo of weirdo-funk jam “Lee Van Cleef,” Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater soundtrack gem “Jerry Was A Racecar Driver” and unnerving southern-rock-tinged classic “My Name Is Mud” would close the hit-heavy first set.  “Where ya get a good cheesesteak ’round here?” yelped Claypool during a quick pause in the set’s final number.  After an hour of music, Primus anticlimactically exited the stage as the curtain closed.  Candy-themed 1920’s swing music provided the backdrop for the 30 minute setbreak as audience members shuffled to and from their seats, jockeying ten dollar PBR’s around one another.

As the lights dimmed and the curtain rose for set two, we were greeted by a glorious wash of color.  Giant inflatable mushrooms framed the Tower proscenium.  Two new musicians, a cellist and a marimba player, flanked Alexander, whose drumset now included massive timpanis, spiraling crash cymbals that drooped to the floor, and a wonderful assortment of auxiliary noisemakers.  The front of the drumset sported a cornucopia of oversized lollipops, candies, chocolates spewing out onto the stage below.  Lalonde cleaned up nicely, now sporting pressed pants and a pinstripe vest.  Alexander had donned a white bodysuit, and Claypool, who had traded in his bass guitar for an electric upright bass, was clearly our very own Willy Wonka for the evening, albeit a terrifying one.  Above them, a huge screen displayed video clips from the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory film that had been edited together with a good helping of psychedelic imagery.

The entire set was basically the new album in sequence, which is musically tedious.  The first two songs give a solid indicator of what the listener is in store for, and not much musical ground is covered across the last 3/4 of the album that isn’t already covered in the first.  The presentation, however, was simply fantastic.  Men in giant oompa-loompa costumes marched onstage and bounced about, Claypool was as terrifying as one might expect a mushroom-induced viewing of Willy Wonka might be, and the “Semi Wondrous Boat Ride” sequence was particularly impressive.  The band built to a cacophonous climax, synced perfectly with the film, and received a massive round of applause from the entranced crowd.

Claypool introduced the “Fungi Ensemble” backing duo, featuring Mike Dillon on percussion and Sam Bass on cello, before leading the musicians off the stage once more.  They would return a few minutes later to deliver a three song encore, but not before the bassist asked for some feedback on what had just ensued.  “You are our guinea pigs,” he explained to the crowd as Alexander tapped out the relentless ride bell intro to “Too Many Puppies.” This song produced the biggest crowd reaction of the evening, as I watched the floor surge forward and nearly crush those against the rail.  “Fisticiffs” and “Here Come The Bastards” would cap the evening, the latter of which featured Claypool altering the ending lyrics to “there they go…,” which he explained made more sense given the songs placement in the show.

The statement that this show made had little to do with Primus’ new music.  This was a band showing us that their ideas cannot be confined to a record.  At thirty years into their career, Primus is capable of creating immersive environments for their music.  This was a multimedia experience, incorporating elements of theater, film, and chamber music and spitting them out through the lens of an iconic rock and roll band.  In terms of creative ambition, Primus is undoubtedly at the top of their game.

Check out photos of the night below, including a roundup of some of our favorite Instagram snaps.

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