NIAGARA FALLS – Primus, the San Francisco-born funk-rock-jam-avant-garde trio, is a strange enough proposition in and of itself. Add the aspect of an entire show done in 3-D, with freaked-out effects matching the ebb and flow of the music while the band performed, and you’ve got yourself an evening’s worth of “theater of the bizarre.”
A sold-out Rapids Theatre in Niagara Falls welcomed the band Tuesday night, after picking up a pair of gratis 3-D glasses on the way in the door, with a hearty wave of appreciative sound that didn’t let up until the trio had completed twin lengthy sets that totaled in excess of three hours of music. The three-dimensional effects were startling, innovative and dizzying; the band incredibly tight; the improvisations riveting and inventive; the song selection simply superb. It was, even with the capacity crowd making it tough to take it all in from the best visual vantage points at times, a perfect night.
Primus is a virtuosic ensemble, a psychedelic funk freak show revolving around the instrumental inventiveness of bassist Les Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Jay Lane. The song selection Tuesday offered ample opportunities for the band to stretch out, but Primus does so in a way that omits aimless noodling, instead favoring multilayered prog-funk ensemble motifs and variations on various themes to drive their mid-song extemporizations.
When these would truly take off, as they did a healthy percentage of the time at the Rapids, and the 3-D visuals began to throb in time with the music, one did indeed feel like one had stepped through the looking glass into the land of the wonderfully weird.
Opening with a walloping one-two punch in the form of “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweakers” and “Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread,” Primus blended the junkyard genius of Tom Waits, the off-color brilliance of Frank Zappa and the progressive virtuosity of Rush into a strange psychedelic gumbo.
Much of the evening’s ceremony would center on the new Primus album, “Green Naugahyde,” a brave and adventurous collection that found original drummer Lane rejoining the band for the first time since the late ’80s. On Tuesday, Primus would play just about the entirety of this new album and pepper the rest of the sets with older classics and beaucoup surprises, among them the first encore, for which Claypool allowed a young man near the front of the stage to choose the tune. (The kid picked “The Toys Go Winding Down,” a rather irreverent and sinister romp from 1990’s “Frizzle Fry.”)
First set highlights included an inspired “Over the Falls,” which featured a midsong breakdown during which Claypool pointed out to the crowd that this was the first time “Over the Falls” had been played so close to Niagara Falls itself, which brought a thunderous collective scream of appreciation from the assembled. “Last Salmon Man” and “Jilly’s on Smack,” both “Green Naugahyde” tunes, were also delivered with ferocious intensity and startling light/shade dynamics.
The latter was nigh on disturbing in its frank assessment of the effect heroin addiction has on the song’s subject – “Jilly’s on smack/ and she won’t be coming back/ No she won’t be coming back/ for the holidays,” Claypool sang, and there was genuine pain in his delivery, the ironic detachment common to Primus lyrics absent for this song.
Set two kicked off with a roiling “Dirty Drowning Man” and moved through a pair of swanky, strutting “Green Naugahyde” numbers in the form of “Moron TV” and “Eternal Consumption Engine” – biting social commentaries – before hitting an evening high with “Tragedy’s a-Comin’” and “Eyes of the Squirrel,” the second accompanied by a 3-D squirrel nibbling nuts and glaring into the camera, played on a continuous loop with psychedelic colors morphing its image over time. It was brilliant, but also kinda terrifying, frankly.
It was highly entertaining watching folks stumble around the Rapids with 3-D glasses on all evening, or to find yourself staring slack-jawed at the stage as the 3-D effects presented a curtain of bubbles directly in front of your face, or offered the illusion of pulling you into a tunnel surrounded by a spinning psychedelic mandala.
Rarely has this writer witnessed such a stunning marriage of live music and visual art. It was wonderfully “out there” and, in a word, awesome.
Concert review
Tuesday night
Rapids Theatre, Niagara Falls