Zany, kooky, offbeat, progressive, demented, deranged, mind-blowing….
Call Primus whatever you like; but one thing they’re not—and will likely never be—is boring.
The Cleveland Performing Arts Center at Masonic Auditorium at E. 36th and Euclid was converted into a Roald Dahl’s Chocolate Factory for three hours Monday evening when the San Francisco trio brought the wacky world of Willy Wonka to town, pureed Primus style. The multimedia concert extravaganza was replete with candy props, costumes, video, and—naturally—the band’s signature quirky tunes, making for a memorable night of nuance, noir, and sure…a little knuckleheadedness.
The three-piece played Ohio than a year ago (at Jacob’s Pavilion at Nautica), still touring behind 2011’s Green Naugahyde with interim drummer Jay Lane. But bassist leader Les Claypool must’ve been eager to hit the road behind the latest Primus project: A front-to-back reimagining of the soundtrack to 1971 fantasy flick Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.
The purple-sleeved Primus and The Chocolate Factory CD finds Claypool and cohorts Larry “Ler” LaLonde (guitar) and Tim “Herb” Alexander (drums) marching through familiar Leslie Bricusse / Anthony Newley-written numbers like “Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination,” and “I Want It Now,” with the enthusiasm of toddlers—albeit the talent of virtuosic musicians with thirty years of aural absurdity under their belts.
The tripartite performance began with a romp through Primus originals like “American Life,” “My Name Is Mud,” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.” Act Two consisted of a run through the Wonka oeuvre in its entirety, with Fungi Ensemble players augmenting the mix on cello and marimba. The encore medley brought band and fans back down to reality—or at least as close to this reality as Primus gets—with more Primus material.
And the Masonic crowd loved it.
Claypool’s certainly no stranger to scatological, left-field lyrics and bizarre progressions, or head-scratchingly strange productions, having channeled his boundless energy into such creative offshoots as Oysterhead, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Fancy Band, and Duo de Dwang in between Primus efforts. But the Wonka album and tour are something completely different; never before have Primus given themselves over to the reinterpretation of someone else’s work for their own (and our) amusement.
But hey, who better for Primus to coopt than Charlie and The Chocolate Factory author Dahl, whose stories (The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Matilda) address and exploit the fantastical in each of us?
Think you’ve never heard of ‘em?
Ever watch South Park? That’s Primus doing the theme song.
Now imagine if that band had scored Willy Wonka, and you’ve got the recipe for serious musical shenanigans. We’re talking airborne elevators, sinister ceiling fans, cocoa rivers, and cruel conveyor belts of buoyant bass, diabolical drums, and crunchy gee-tar.
The boys played on a relatively barren, sparsely-lit stage early on—as if they were their own opening act (approximately 8:10pm to 9:10pm)—and veered through a string of bouncy, herky-jerky Primus staples before a giant Masonic tapestry. Done up in black (not unlike gunslinger “Lee Van Cleef”), Claypool propped up one leg while hammering and tapping his bass strings with his fingers. At stage right, LaLonde shredded on a tobacco sunburst Fender Stratocaster—and conjured feedback and distortion for texture. Alexander’s drum kit looked far less imposing than it sounded when he sat behind it to play.
The stage looked markedly different when the curtain lifted for the second set. Inflatable mushrooms and flowers decorated the ends of the stage. Alexander wore a white confectioner’s jumpsuit and goggles—the safety attire from the film’s Television Room. Flanking him were Fungi fellows Sam Bass (cello) and Mike Dillon (marimba), each masked—but dressed to the nines. LaLonde now sported plaid slacks, pressed shirt and vest, and snazzy bow tie. Claypool was wearing a Cyrano De Bergerac-like prosthetic nose, and he’d swapped his black jacket for a purple waistcoat. And his Carl Thompson 4-string scroll bass for an acoustic upright—which he alternately bowed and plucked.
Most Wonka tracks were shorter (and less manic) than your standard Primus fare, given their cinematic lineage as musical cues and segues. But they dovetailed together smoothly—from “Hello Wonkites” to “Farewell Wonkites”—even when left to Primus’ mirthful devices. Claypool’s “Candy Man” was a far cry from the Gene Wilder (or Sammy Davis) iteration, sounding more like a salacious invite from the neighborhood creep than an innocent summons to sugar-charged Technicolor revelry.
“Cheer Up, Charlie” seemed even more melancholy coming out of Claypool instead of Charlie Bucket’s widowed mum (Diana Sowie), but “Golden Ticket” captured the mocking tone favored by the movie’s narcissistic children Mike Teevee, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregard, and Augustus Gloop. Wilder’s “Pure Imagination” will always be our personal de facto take, but Claypool’s “Come with me” daydream was convincing. No surprise there, given that Claypool—like Wilder’s fictitious chocolatier—has been his own sort of eccentric ringmaster / artiste for as long as we can remember.
Bass and Dillon got a chance to shine on the instrumental “Lermaninoff”—then a pair of oversized Oompa-Loompas with gigantic papier mache heads lumbered onstage to pogo up-and-down to their theme song, their outlandishly orange countenances contrasting with their garish green hair and striped sleeves. Claypool donned a red wig and brown top hat at this point, thereby completing his metamorphosis into Wilder’s Wonka, and thumped a resonator bass while the golden eggs and everlasting gobstoppers from the Mel Stuart film flickered on the video backdrop.
Whether in “street attire” or masquerading as his Wonka analog, Claypool was a dervish of motion, high-stepping in circles whilst popping and thumb-slapping his strings (when not stuck singing on his microphone). LaLonde was more introverted, closing his eyes and soloing on his Stratocasters, long hair obscuring his face. Recuperated from heart surgery, Alexander pummeled the skins, crashed and splashed his cymbals, and whumped his double-kick drums on zesty zingers and pachyderm paeans as Les indulged more horse-headed high jinks.
Keeping with the tour’s tinfoil-wrapped theme, the merchandise available in the Masonic lobby included more than the usual T-shirts, tote bags, and souvenir posters (unique to each show): For this outing, Primus are offering their own song-derived variations of the Wonka bars seen in the movie.
We didn’t sample any, but we hear the Mr. Krinkle, Pork Soda, Professor Nutbutter, and Bastard Bars are scrumdidilyumptioius.