Artist Feature: Primus and the Chocolate Factory

By Taylor Back: Live & Listen Contributing Writer

Primus and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are a perfect match. Both are full of strange characters and wildly creative stories but both contain harder dark sides that can be unnerving and hard to ignore. Whether it is insane chocolate barons or out of control race car drivers, floating down a stream of chocolate or sailing seas of cheese, creating dark phantasies is a rudimental foundation for both Roald Dhal and Les Claypool. In Dhal’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it is the greed of humanity that drives the story line and sharply contrasts the light-hearted scenes and characters as each character induces their own demise. For Primus, it is Claypool’s deep and forceful bass playing that adds dark sinister undertones to the lyrical stories of one of the most talented alternative metal trios. Add some Fungi Ensemble to the mix and you have the ingredients for one of the most unique shows and a crazy musical journey.

Let me be clear: this is not a metal rock group covering the soundtrack of an old children’s film, this is one of the most celebrated and brilliant bass payers of our time brilliantly interpreting and producing his own take on one of the greatest adventures any child or man has ever imagined. While making your own version of something so loved and celebrated can be a delicate task Claypool and company do it to perfection. Claypool seems to walk the balance of lighthearted imaginative fantasy and the deep dark reality of humanity. Claypool is speaking Dhal’s language and the result is truly spectacular.

The original Primus lineup took stage inside one of the most beloved venues in the south, The Tabernacle, on a cold and dreary Saturday night in Atlanta, Georgia. Inside the venue, though, things were quite the opposite. The venue was sold out and people were jamming in. The energy was palpable and the venue quickly heated up. When Primus took the stage the crowd erupted into a frenzy that surely shook the folks down the street at Philips Arena watching the Atlanta Hawks take on the Knicks. The stage setup was plain and basic, consisting of just a curtain back drop with the trio taking up space at center stage. “Too Many Puppies” kicked things off followed by “Moron TV”, “Groundhog Day” and a very hard hitting “American Life”. At this point, if you weren’t pouring sweat, seething with energy, and keeping a cautious eye on the developments in the mosh pits, you weren’t alive. “Seas of Cheese” made way for “Mr. Krinkle”. Next was “Jilly’s On Smack”, and though Tim Alexander had made his skillful presence known all night, it was this song where he really proved he is as good as he ever was. Claypool then treated the fans to “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and then finished a fast first set with a personal favorite of mine “My Name Is Mud”.

When they pulled the curtain up for the second set the stage had been transformed into a chocolate factory that had been invaded by fungus, The Fungi Ensemble to be exact. Tim Alexander was buried in the middle of the stage below a screen, dawning the all-white TV teleportation suite worn in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory; The Fungi Ensemble surrounded him. Alexander is flanked by Mike Dillon and Sam Bass both wearing plain masks and tuxedos.  Claypool is in the forefront and Larry LaLonde across the stage from him. The entire team is amongst a forest of giant mushrooms, candies, and streams with a projector screen behind. “Hello Wonkites” starts the trip through the chocolate factory and in my mind was the point of no return. Claypool’s take on these songs is everything you would expect from the musical mad man himself: Beautifully crafted with a dark sense of humor. His “Candyman” sounds nothing like the one in the original movie but it does sound like something from Of Fungi and Foe. The upright eerily creaks along as Claypool mumbles and howls throughout the tune. “Cheer up Charlie” was the highlight of the chocolate factory for me. In this tune Claypool plays a beautiful melody on his bass guitar while Bass weeps with his cello and Dillon taps away at a pair of tablas. Claypool laughs wickedly while pictures of a terrified Charlie repeatedly flash across the projector. The song is a mood rollercoaster, one moment it is sad and gloomy, the next it is cheerful. “Golden Ticket” proves to be as hard of a hitter as any Primus song. It had the crowd in a complete uproar as Claypool proudly bellowed over his acquisition of a golden ticket and let his bass notes prance about as if they were doing a victory dance. For “Pure Imagination” Claypool retreats off stage only to return quickly, returning dressed like Willy Wonka in the original film: in a purple jacket and top hat and appearing to be crippled. As he nears center stage he straightens up… the crowd erupts… and it’s on. Golden Ticket peaks with an outrageously aggressive Dillon marimba solo that is fueled by a raucous audience. Next is one of several Oompa-Loompas songs that serve as segues throughout the show much as they do in the movie. It is our first encounter with the pair of giant headed Oompa-Loompas that waltz from the sides of the stage and meet in the center. They bob there for the duration of the song before exiting the way they entered.

“Semi Wondrous Boat Ride” was the most anticipated song of the evening for me. In the original movie the scene takes a dramatic and frightening turn for the worst. I was eager and slightly terrified to see how Claypool would reproduce the scene. He does not stray too far away from the original version and before you know it another Oompa-Loompa interlude sets us up for “I Want It Now” (Veruca Salt’s temper tantrum she throws over a golden goose). LaLonde takes lead vocals on this track and does a great job belting out the demands of the bratty little girl over Bass’s slinking cello. The interpretation has a distinctly far eastern sound to it. After a trip through the Wonkawash in “Wonkamobile” we have our final glimpse of the Oompa-Loompas, and then we’re on to “Farewell Wonkites” - the end of our crazy trip through Claypool’s bizarre musical candy factory.  Everyone pounds through this number generating a forceful closing salvo, Claypool’s finishes singing the words a capella and the journey has ended.

The Crowd refuses to call it a night just yet and the entire group obliges their efforts as they enter the stage for the encore. “Southbound Pachyderm” has a phenomenal video playing featuring elephants from the original music video as well as a captivating elephant bouncing on a trampoline. Alexander, Lalonde, and Claypool tear through the number with the help of the Fungus Ensemble all the while the mosh pits are in a complete frenzy, as if they are a giant living organism themselves swimming below the stage and the balconies. At some point during the encore Claypool stops mid jam to get a few things off his chest.  He confesses that he was just thinking of a Lance Armstrong documentary he recently watched and how he himself was a lying cheating bastard just like Lance. First because he lied about New York being the loudest crowd when in reality Atlanta had certainly taken the cake.  And secondly, he believed we were all lying, cheating bastards because just like Lance Armstrong, we are all probably on performance enhancing drugs at the moment. The crowd ate all this to bits and responds with thunderous approval. He stopped a second song after admitting to forgetting some lyrics. He said he was distracted and had become worried for a child’s safety in the front of the pit near the moshers. Upon learning that she was 20-years-old, Claypool expressed disappointment as he hoped to ask “from a child’s perspective, what did you think of the whole Willy Wonka thing?” He also took a few moments to sing the praises of Alexander and asked him for a drum solo featuring only his kick drum and his octobans to show off that “newly rebuilt engine” as Claypool put it, after recovering from a heart attack weeks earlier. Everyone bounces through “Dutchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread” and finally “Here Come the Bastards” closes the night out right around 11pm

This was a true once-in-a-life time experience and it was all made possible by a once-in-a-generation talented mind like Les Claypool’s. After years and years of bass playing, he is still pushing boundaries and challenging himself. Taking music and his fans to places never before conceived. The experience he created for everyone that night he transformed The Tabernacle into his very own fungus infused chocolaty factory is unforgettable. He nailed the essence of what Roald Dhal wrote about in his children’s book in a way only Claypool can.