"This is the Palace of Fine Arts. Do you know what that means?" Primus bassist/singer Les Claypool asked during their first set Friday night. "We, Primus, are now considered fine art. I've gone from being the guy that wrote the song about a beaver, to fine art."
"Now let's play that song about the beaver!" Claypool yelped, before the band kicked into one of their biggest hits, "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver."
To a cheering crowd, the song would be followed up with other alternative-era classics like "My Name Is Mud" and "Jerry Was A Race Car Driver." The three-piece also revived a handful of tracks from their debut studio album Frizzle Fry, which the band -- Claypool, guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim "Herb the Ginseng Drummer" Alexander -- recorded in San Francisco 25 years ago.
The concert at the Palace of Fine Arts served as the last in San Francisco before the band takes another hiatus. The break comes after the band's strange recycling of their first two drummers: when Primus decided to reform back in 2010, Alexander wasn't interested, and so Claypool recruited the group's real first drummer, funkmaster and living pot chimney Jay "Jayski" Lane (whose return led to the groove-heavy 2011 LP Green Naugahyde). After touring and playing for about three years, Lane returned to playing with Bob Weir in Further, but by then, Alexander was ready to get back behind the kit.
Before re-joining the band that he recorded so many landmark albums with -- Pork Soda, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, Tales From the Punchbowl -- Alexander spent time working in the percussion-heavy performance troupe Blue Man Group. The experience sparked a new interest for Alexander in unconventional percussion, which he wanted to incorporate with Primus. Claypool had the perfect idea for it: a reworking of the music to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
"I had been talking about doing a project, some sort of sacred cow, and I had always wanted to do the Wonka thing," Claypool said in an interview before the show. "It was basically 'Herb's back, let's keep going,' and they were up for this project."
Friday night's show was the second-to-last performance of Primus and the Chocolate Factory, as their license to play the songs and use footage from the original movie in their stage show is running out. This is a shame, for the hallucinatory experience that is Primus and the Chocolate Factory should be had by so many more people than what the Palace of Fine Arts can seat. I was glad to see some parents bringing their kids, because the show has the same goals that the movie did: provide a new view on something familiar, be it life in poverty or a classic film. Hopefully some of them had their minds blown.
But mind expansion was definitely not in short supply during that show -- I wouldn't be surprised if the Palace repaints its walls to cover the up fresh layer of pot resin that's surely coating the theater's interior. But those weed-toking fans were out in force -- moreso, it seemed, for the Chocolate Factory portion of the night. And I could understand why: though I was looking forward to hearing songs I've always enjoyed, it was the Wonka portion that hasn't left my thoughts since I left the venue.
In our interview, Claypool told me that since his days in Oysterhead, he's toned down his stage energy in order to concentrate more on his playing. So even though you'll hear the hits, don't go see Primus expecting the bass player from the festivals of yore (the '90s) to be hopping all over the stage while kicking out his left foot (which some fans describe as the "Les Claypool"). But it appears the physical slowing that comes with old age has opened up a new instrument for Claypool: the stage set. The total experience that was the Wonka set -- the lights, the warped movie footage, the men in giant Oompa Loopmpa heads -- is a sign that, like the bass, Claypool has mastered it.
Here are a few photos for proof: