When pigs flew...

I was excited about seeing Les Claypool (billed as "Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Brigade") perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, primarily because of the set list they were reportedly playing. In fact, the show, which was supposed to also be a taping for a live album, was so popular that it sold out. What to do?

My friend Jason and I are working on a song which involves sampling conversations from random people along the streets of San Francisco, and so we decided we'd try to get tickets and if not, we'd try to make some progress on this song. We arrived at 730p or so, and found that even though I had a photo pass for a show, there were no tickets available and scalpers were asking as high as $75 for a ticket. We got out our DAT recorder and walked around for a couple of hours, recording some interesting conversations, one from a guy who gave us a lecture on how to make crack cocaine, a few lines from street walkers, and finally a bunch of rap from some talented young kids who were waiting for the bus. Quite productive.

Satisfied, we made it back to the venue and since we could hear everything clearly from the outside, we decided to stick around and enjoy the music from afar. The band went through unique versions of songs like Running the Gauntlet and Wynona's Big Brown Beaver.

The main reason I wanted to go to this show was to see the band's performance of Pink Floyd's Animals, played live its entirety. As we were standing there, someone came up to us and offered us two tickets for sale, which we immediately took. We went in just as the band finished up with a long jam and launched into Thela Hun Ginjeet (Heat in the Jungle) by King Crimson! It was an amazing performance and just gave a taste of how superb the musicians were. Les Claypool's breath-taking bass wizardry was just but one of the highlights of the show. The solid guitar work by Todd Huth (Primus, Sausage, Porch), the classy jazz-influenced drumming by Jay Lane (Primus, Sausage, The Charlie Hunter Trio, Alphabet Soup), the noisy keyboard work of Jeff Chimenti (Phil Lesh, En Vogue), the unknown guitarist Eenor with dreadlocks who seemed to be able to play anything and with anything handed to him, and the permeating saxophone by Skerik (Galactic), were equally impressive. (For the record, Jay Lane and Todd Huth were both members of one of the original incarnations of Primus.)

After the intermission, the band came back and played, as Les promised, "a shitload of Pink Floyd." They launched into the first part of Pigs on the Wing, sung and played by Todd Huth, and then went on to Dogs, Pigs (Three Different Ones), Sheep, finally ending with the second part of Pigs on the Wing. The performance was not only a tribute to Claypool's band, but also to arguably some of the greatest musicians of all time, Pink Floyd. While it's possible that Claypool's band could've changed Animals to suit their thrash-funk style more, they generally didn't. The album was essentially done in a very straight-forward manner (which, if you've heard Animals, is total genius) with Roger Waters' and David Gilmour's vocals reproduced fairly accurately, the solos reproduced with precision, the keyboard noise ever present, and the bass lines dominating. The main exception was the Psalm 23 section in Sheep, which was replaced with Les' bass doodling

Animals happens to be my favourite Pink Floyd album and I'm really happy this band chose to reproduce it to such exaction (it's also a great album for this sort of an experiment, given that it's vastly underrated---this way, the album gets even more exposure). In this concept album, Pink Floyd patiently build and tear down musical structures, taking their time while doing it, resulting in three songs clocking over ten minutes (which is almost all the album). There's also heavy use of the acoustic guitars with synthesisers which makes for an interesting combination. While the music and the lyrics are intellectual, and while I feel, after having seen the live, Pink Floyd themselves would've played this in a much more sterile manner (not to say that's bad, but just different), the band imparted a sense of fun and bounce to this album. The energy level was high and I've always believed Pink Floyd songs could go beyond the psychedelic into sheer heaviness, and Les Claypool's experiment proved just that.

What was also impressive was Les' command of the crowd. More than a musician, he is an entertainer who holds the crowd's attention with his crazy antics. In a way, his mannerisms remind me a lot of Andy Kaufman's.

For the encore, Tim "Herb" Alexander, the drummer that was partly responsible for catapulting Primus to mainstream success, joined them and they had two drummers at the same time, à la King Crimson. Herb was much more aggressive than Jay Lane, and it was a pleasure to watch him drum again.

A breath-taking show and an awesome evening. Look out for the live album.

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org || October 9, 2000