Celebrating 518 Day on May 18th, bass-heavy psychedelic prog rock ‘bastards’ Primus made their triumphant return to Albany. Amidst a special 46 date, coast-to-coast tribute tour paying homage to fellow prog-rock legends Rush and drummer Neil Peart, the influential Bay Area trio performed two distinct sets; one of original music and the other, a full cover set of Rush’s seminal 1977 album A Farewell to Kings.
Curated by charismatic Primus front man and bass playing virtuoso, Les Claypool, the only logical venue suited for an occasion of such royal proportions was downtown Albany’s historic Palace Theatre.
The man, the myth, the compulsive entertainer, Les Claypool has arguably been one of rock’s most influential players of the last thirty years. Creating a mythical, almost cult-like following through his multitude of side projects, some may know him from his time with Trey Anastasio and Oysterhead , or with Buckethead and The Flying Frog Brigade, or more recently with his “Delirium” collaboration with Sean Lennon, son of Yoko and John. An impressive pedigree to be sure, but make no mistake, Primus has always been the bread and butter for Les and also his most successful.
But what made him want to start playing music in the first place?It all goes back to a single day in 1978 when a young Claypool attended his first ever rock concert. Performing that night was a young Canadian banned named Rush. Mesmerized by what he saw on stage, it was then Claypool decided music was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. 14 years later and now spearheading a colorful band of his own dubbed “Primus,” things came full circle when they were offered a supporting slot on Rush’s 1992 tour. They say never meet your heroes or you’ll be disappointed, but in the case, the two bands shared an instant connection and would develop a close friendship organically through years of touring together. According to Claypool, paying tribute to Rush is simply a way to say “thank you” for all of their inspiration.
Bringing the “Tribute to Kings” Tour to the Palace Theater this past Wednesday, fans turned out in droves, but not necessarily to see Primus. With the passing of iconic drummer Neal Peart, Rush played their final show in August of 2015, yet based on the sheer amount of vintage Rush t-shirts and memorabilia that was present at the Palace, it’s fair to say there is still a significant demand for their music. If there is any three-piece unit that has the talent and the chops to fill that void, it would have to be the mighty Primus.
Taking the darked Palace stage as the customary Danny Elfman “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” theme piped in over the PA, Claypool, along with guitar player Larry “Ler” LaLonde and frummer Tim “Herb” Alexander, wasted no time in letting their intention be known. Playing the type of songs that don’t exactly fit well with the radio format, class was in session early as Primus opening their performance with an “American Life” history lesson. Complete with a massive rear projector high above the stage displaying hypnotic video loops and depicting things like immigrants registering at Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, along with images of Mount Rushmore and Honest Abe, the projections would subtly change to a ‘military marching orders’ theme during classic Primus cuts like the songs “Too Many Puppies” and “Sgt. Baker.
The low-end pulse would beat a little louder (and darker) on the next song, 1989’s repetitive, percussion-heavy trance educing song “The Pressman,” after which Claypool claimed the band had not played in a while. One of the highest highlights of the first set came next with a rare “Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats” which segued nicely into a “Del Davis Tree Farm” bust-out, played for the first time since 2017. Sensing an opportunity to slip in something new, Primus then unloaded their brand new sprawling and groovy single, the covid-inspired, tongue in cheek eleven minute opus “Conspiranoia.” The opening set concluded with a condensed mash-up of “Welcome to This World” and the always awesome “My Name Is Mud.”
From there the Rush was on, literally. In an evening billed as a “Tribute to Kings,” Primus would honor their musical heroes by performing the 1977 classic Rush album A Farewell To Kings in its entirety. Other than a minor wardrobe change and Claypool trading in his signature Carl Thompson ‘Rainbow’ bass for a black and white Rickenbacker model, Primus tore through the set with such complete confidence it almost made you forget these were someone else’s songs.
Technically proficient, it was the vocals that proved to be the biggest challenge for Claypool. At one point addressing the audience between songs, acknowledging Geddy Lee’s high pitched (and often polarizing) vocal style isn’t exactly “easy” to mimic and then encouraged those who knew the lyrics to try and help sing the next one, then launching into one of Rush;s biggest radio hits, “Closer to the Heart.” For a brief time during “Xanadu,” both Claypool and Ler could be seen wielding a pair of huge, double necked axes. Allegedly the first to ever play an electric 12 string bass, Geddy Lee claims Rickenbacker specifically built the first one for him.
After witnessing Lee perform with the mammoth instrument at his first ever concert, Claypool confessed he’s wanted one ever since and joked that it took him all these years to finally be able to afford one. Always cracking wise, Claypool would also make several light-hearted jabs at the people in the first few rows who were still inexplicably sitting down, saying “it’s that mutual exchange of energy that [he] feeds off and that if he has to remain standing through the entire performance, everyone else should be up off the asses too.” Les then dove into his favorite Rush song of all time, the set closing “Cygnus x-1.” Just prior to the encore, Claypool would later apologize to anyone who may have been offended by his heckling and then proceeded to drop into the opening notes of Primus Frizzle Fry fan favorite “Groundhog’s Day” from 1990. Still not satisfied, fans begging for “just one more” were treated to a tune Claypool introduced as “a true story about a friend…who was addicted to crack.” His name was Harold.
Coming to a close a little before midnight, most people stayed all the way to the end as the theme from the original “Charlie and Chocolate Factory” helped send them home with a smile. There was a little something for everyone at this show. Sure, real Primus fans want to hear all Primus all the time and the faithful Rush fans were probably a little overwhelmed by the undeniable heaviness and some of the weirdos the Primus scene tends to attract, perhaps even hoping for another radio hit like “Tom Sawyer” or “Spirit of the Radio.”
The real winners on this night were the scores of young fans in attendance. Similar to the way Les Claypool’s life was forever changed by his first concert, you couldn’t help but notice the abundance of skid fathers who brought their boys with them. Perhaps the sentimental notion of passing the prog-rock crown from Rush to Primus? Or maybe they just couldn’t find a babysitter? Or maybe, just maybe the next great virtuoso bass player was sitting right there in the Palace Theatre all along, absorbing the magic of live music at their very first concert. One thing is for sure, Primus most certainly does not suck.
Primus | May 18th, 2022 | Albany, NY | Palace Theatre
Set 1: American Life, Too Many Puppies(>)Sgt. Baker(> ‘Too Many Puppies’ reprise), The Pressman, Last Salmon Man, Conspiranoia, Professor Nutbutter’s House of Treats, Del Davis Tree Farm (First time live since 2017), Welcome to This World, My Name Is Mud
Set 2: A Farewell to Kings, Xanadu, Closer to the Heart, Cinderella Man, Madrigal, Cygnus X-1
Encore: Groundhog’s Day, Harold of the Rocks, Follow the Fool >Harold of the Rocks Reprise