Last year, Primus turned in one of the finest shows of the summer concert season at Gratwick Park in North Tonawanda. This year, the band came back for what could’ve been a victory lap, but turned into something much more. The band – a trio responsible for creating its own little wrinkle within the world of alternative music, one where funk, avant garde, rock and a mangled form of heavy metal commingle with ease – delivered another two hours of twisted genius.
Fronted by bassist and vocalist Les Claypool, Primus delivered the high-volume goods to a crowd that was a bit smaller than last year’s – the 2013 Gratwick Park Primus show was free, and this one asked a $15 fee for advance purchase tickets – but the band didn’t seem to care. They brought the goods, then lit them on fire, and invited us all to dance around the resulting inferno.
The Niagara River Rocks offers an only slightly odd bucolic setting – odd because seeing Primus (and opener Fishbone) on a grassy knoll near the Niagara River seems like a bit of a non sequitur, when both bands seem better suited to a dimly lit environment – for what turned out to be an inspired tour through Primus’ 25-year history.
The band – Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde, drummer Tim Alexander – took the stage with the scintillating, filthy groove of “Here Come the Bastards.” The crowd got into it straightaway, submitting to the classic Primus sense of groove, which balances deep funk tropes against a sense of the oddly playful that suggests a full immersion in the music of Frank Zappa.
This was a seriously fiery shot across the bow, but things were ratcheted up several notches with the set’s second song, “Moron TV,” a scathing (but still hilarious) condemnation of contemporary America’s obsession with seedy and sensationalist television.
And then they were off, Claypool offering a case study in his own take on the history of the electric bass – slapping, thumping, strumming, tapping, and doing anything one might possibly imagine might bring a strikingly percussive sound from his instrument – while LaLonde offered perfectly “out there” contrapuntal melodic lines and dense chord clusters, and Alexander sashayed across the tightrope above a chasm housing world beat textures, reggae, hard rock, pro, and some odd marriage of all of them.
Claypool told a funny story about standing at Niagara Falls earlier in the day, contemplating hopping in a barrel and, as the subsequent song detailed, going “Over the Falls.”
Primus can do dark like few others, too, and “Jilly’s on Smack” – a frank and funky dissertation on a band friend’s death at the hands of heroin – was both grim and impossible to resist. A run-through of the theme for telvision’s South Park show – composed by Claypool, and jokingly referred to by the man himself as “the thing that will be engraved on my tombstone” – offered some comic relief. So did “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” a song Claypool said “is for us, more than for you, and is a bit self-indulgent.”
A late-in-the-set “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” got the crowd in a pogoing mood, and “Too Many Puppies” – a song that, despite its innocuous title, deals with the startling number of young men given to enlisting and then being sent into combat situations – helped to round out what was about as close to a perfect Primus set as one can get.
Having Fishbone on the bill as the opening act helped push Sunday’s show toward the transcendent. The Los Angeles-born funk-R&B-rock-punk-soul-ska-reggae outfit just plain tore it up, as frontmen Angelo Moore and John Norwood Fisher led the band through a set that included hardcore ska of “Whipper Snapper,” the hilarious post-rap of “Let Dem Ho’s Fight” and the punk-reggae of “Ma & Pa.” Fishbone brought the fire, the fury, and the finesse, and greatly added to the evening’s magical air.
A perfect night, start to finish.