This Week, the Everlasting Les Claypool Rings in 20 Years of Weird New Year's Eve Shows

Categories: Show To Know
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Les Claypool and the Frog Brigade
Think back, grasshopper, project yourself back to the late '80s and the early '90s -- yes, a lifetime ago. Major labels and would-be majors signed tons of bands that could more or less bear the handle of "alternative rock." The discs by many of these bands can now be found in the four dollars-or-less section of your local music emporium. In some ways, that time was like the '60s -- not musically, but in the sense of many performers having a short time in the limelight before being sent back to the minors, if not oblivion. (Remember O-Positive or the poor, once-fab Big Dipper?) Either the labels had little faith in the bands over the long haul, or many bands didn't have the substance to sustain a career. (There's also a fickle public, but that's another rant for another time.)

How many that emerged during that era are still going like the Energizer Bunny or Jesse Jackson, and not just coasting on past glories? (Public Image Ltd. reunion tour, anyone? The tour with one sole original member?)

Ladies, gents, fellow organisms, I give you: Les Claypool.

The Les Claypool saga begins in Richmond, California, 1963. Claypool is from the generation wherein youth could embrace old-school and misfit/outsider sounds. Fellow student Kirk Hammett (yep, of Metallica) hipped him to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Cream. When the teenage Claypool was attracted to the four-string bass instead of the six-string guitar, Yes' Chris Squire, Rush's Geddy Lee, jazz fusion whiz Stanley Clarke, and Bay Area funkmeister Larry Graham (Sly & the Family Stone) became role models. By graduation, Claypool had expanded his horizons to include assorted styles of jazz, funk, metal, Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, post-punk, relentlessly absorbing genres, ideas, and technique like a sonic counterpart to The Blob. He developed the urge to bring together waters from these assorted tributaries, too. Les Claypool founded Primus (formerly Primate ) -- with guitarist Larry LaLonde and drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, the lineup that recorded the debut album Suck On This.

Here was something unusual -- here was a band that had the slam of metal, the irreverence of punk, the wiriness of funk. It was "musicianly," with instrumental acumen up the wazoo, also experimental, but instead of being somber or off-putting, it cajoled listeners with zany, cheerily grotesque humor. (Small wonder Primus got to contribute the theme to Comedy Central's South Park, in case you hadn't noticed on the show's end credits.) Creativity and gregariousness in the same package -- and, oddly enough, Primus was welcomed by the marketplace. The band's third disc, Sailing the Seas of Cheese, hit Gold status, and Primus opened for acts diverse as Anthrax, Public Enemy, and Rush. Lollapalooza would beckon. Mr. Claypool sat back, sipped some patent-pending pork soda, and saw that it was good.

Like the members of the Grateful Dead, Les Claypool keeps his batteries charged with assorted "projects" outside of Mothership Primus. These include most notably Sausage (with original, pre-debut album Primus members Todd Huth and Jay Lane), and Oysterhead, a triumvirate of megawatt instrumentalists: Claypool, Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, and Police drummer Stuart Copeland, plus Claypool's own Frog Brigade and Holy Mackerel. Claypool has guested on discs by Jerry Cantrell, Tom Waits, and Buckethead. It's this "restlessness" that keeps Les Claypool's loaf from going stale and/or growing (evil) mold on the shelf.

For the last 20 years, Les Claypool has performed in the Bay Area on New Year's Eve in one outfit or another -- this year, too. Tonight, the Residents open and Primus will play Sailing the Seas of Cheese in its entirety. On New Year's Eve, the Dead Kenny G's are followed by Les Claypool's Fancy Brigade, and then Primus, playing songs from their entire career. It all gets real at the Fox Theater.

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