24 June 2015
Last night Primus came to town. It was a gig like no other. The band played 2 maybe 3 sets of music that was was more event grade than rock standard and still sold out the 3500 capacity Apollo. A unique evening documented by LTW contributor and Membranes drummer Rob Haynes.
We have gathered as though at a medieval fair, arriving in excited groups to witness the strange wonders brought to town by the travelling musicians with their exotic instrumentation and unnaturally dexterous hands.
Primus, for it is they, haven’t been the most frequent of visitors to the region, following very much their own itinerary, musically and geographically. Tonight they will present their mind-bending latest album ‘Primus and The Chocolate Factory’, but first they open with a rummage through an identity parade line-up of their back-catalogue which begins with the loping chug of 1991’s ‘Those Damn Blue Collar Tweekers’, with uber-bassist Les Claypool spinning out a finger-picking solo midway in with the casual effort of someone lightly dusting their mantelpiece.
To his right long-standing guitar cohort Larry Lalonde calmly goes about his business, spraying minimalist additions to songs and abruptly launching into spiraling solos whenever it is suspected he may be coasting. The returned Tim Alexander likewise reins in his evident prowess and propels the songs with deadly economy behind his extensive drumkit.
On ‘American Life’ Claypool plays both the rhythm and lead riffs simultaneously, ambling insouciantly about the stage between verses – none of the cartoonish stomping that he used to do, and in fact the dark influence of Chocolate Factory seems to spread back into this first set, slowing things down and weighting them with further weirdness.
‘Over The Falls’, taut and poised in its acoustic recorded version, here has added electric heft and density; the near-impossibly heavy bass line to ‘My Name Is Mud’ grinds out like a continental plate clearing its throat. And while it’s a thrill to hear the likes of ‘Winona’s Big Brown Beaver’, there’s a nagging sense that the band have an eye to the forthcoming centerpiece set.
And so after an interval we’re dragged and plunged into the Chocolate Factory, where the ambiguously murky imaginations of Roald Dahl, the eerie 1971 Gene Wilder-led film and Primus collide. The stage bulges with cartoonish mushrooms and sickly day-glo lights and back-projections. The line-up is augmented with the Fungi Ensemble, a masked cellist and percussionist looming on separate platforms. Alexander drums in a scientist’s isolation suit, Claypool starts with a Noseybonk mask then re-emerges in full Willy Wonka gear.
The crowd, fully used to being led down whichever peculiar byways Primus guide them, applaud with due awe as cello and marimba solos spiral out while footage of Grandpa Joe loops and distorts in the background. Two figures in enormous head masks stroll on and perform the Oompa-Loompa dance at regular intervals. Like the source book and film, it’s at once innocent and deeply sinister. The songs flicker and writhe like barely imagined deep sea fish caught briefly in the light of a submarine.
Primus have produced their strangest album to date from a collection of cover versions (albeit heavily personalised) and yet they’ve made it a distinct statement of their own, and perfectly realised it on stage. It seems difficult to imagine them following this, but having played the album in its garish entirety, follow it they nevertheless do, returning with the alarm bell clang that signals ‘Too Many Puppies’. At last the big shorts and tattoos brigade can start a proper mosh pit, with Claypool cheerfully overseeing it all in his Willy Wonka suit.
‘Here Come the Bastards’ features an entertaining digression on the screen where one of the dancing Oompa Loompas is shown wandering through the streets of Manchester and even visiting the grounds of both Manchester football clubs, a provocation somewhat akin to balancing gelignite, but one which just about gees up the crowd without actually tipping them over into a riot. And then with a brief tip of their Willy Wonka hat, the curtains close, the lights come up and the carnival moves on to the next town. The trip is over. Back to reality, whatever that is now.