Les Claypool and his Fancy Band invaded the mean streets of Baltimore, bringing with them strange sights and sounds the likes of which have rarely been witnessed by the natives. The Ram's Head Live was awash with the diversity of all manner of fan, Les didn't disappoint and only those in attendance can truly tell the tale of an experiment gone terribly right!
Les Claypool's Fancy Band
By Mike Pursley
Photos by Ellie Timms
When going to a live Les Claypool show expect the unexpected. Unless of course you know him well enough to already expect the unexpected. In that case, expect an amazing show. As the daring bass guitar innovator approaches middle age he shows no sign of loosing his edge. In fact, Les, along with his Fancy Band, is making some of the most unique music of his career.
I caught Les Claypool's Fancy Band at Ram's Head Live in Baltimore on June 6th. For someone who grew up with Primus and saw them at a H.O.R.D.E. tour show in the mid-nineties, catching one of my early musical heroes in the moderately sized
Ram's Head Live venue was an exciting prospect. For whatever reason, I haven't closely followed
Claypool's post-Primus work so I also had a lot of questions. Could the jam band rumors be true? That prospect made me a bit nervous.
As the Ram's Head filled I scoped out the stage and the crowd while drinking Bud Light from an absurd aluminum bottle. The fans were an eclectic stew of high-schoolers, music store dudes, hippies, old metalheads, and non-denominational wackos. Recalling the chipper shredder effect Primus had on my concept of music in my greener days I was happy to see a new generation there for Les.
Since Primus, Les has formed a few different acts including Les
Claypool's Frog Brigade, Oysterhead, and Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. His most current group, Les
Claypool's Fancy Band backed him on the 2006 release Of Whales and Woe and serve as his touring group.
The Fancy Band features Cake drummer Paulo Baldi and multi-instrumentalist Gabby La La on sitar, ukulele, and Theremin. Saxophonist Skerik and percussionist Mike Dillon, both members of Critters Buggin, complete the quintet. For those not familiar with the work of Critters Buggin, check them out. Compelling wonders await you.
Two Gallants, a guitar/drums duo from San Francisco kicked things off on a pleasing note, beginning a long,
reverberated guitar, noodling before the drums locked in. Although based in a folk/rock approach they conjured an ambient/shoegazer subtlety at times. They also rocked out nicely. The range of sounds this duo produced proved them to be a talented act.
The Fancy Band took the stage with an unavoidably funky jam that drew in the crowd. Claypool projected a sinister coolness wearing a bowler hat and devilish goatee. I tried to think of any other bass, sax, electric sitar, xylophone, and drum quintets I knew of and came up empty. Even on the first tune plenty of jamming took place, a theme that the Fancy Band would keep up for the entire show.
Song two was a slow and meaty. Gabby La La switched her sitar for a ukulele. A searing sax solo that reminded me of a star being ripped apart wowed the audience. The Fancy Band then moved to a haunted house waltz with some very outside xylophone and bass interplay, a sitar solo, and a bass solo. Next was a mellow tune, played with an upright bass that recalled the work of frequent Claypool collaborator Tom Waits.
Les briefly left the stage, returned wearing a pig mask, and proceeded to really to stretch things out. A demented psychobilly puker became stripped to drums and bowed upright bass. Les soon departed leaving only the two percussionists. What followed was over ten minutes of some of the most skilled percussive cacophony I have had the pleasure to witness.
At one point a flanged and feeding back xylophone became a portal to another universe. Les returned wearing a monkey mask and made a hellish noise on a slack string bass on which he wielded his bow like a Singapore jailer. I wondered if his monkey mask was chosen due to the simian cries Les summoned as he pulled the bass sting slack and taunt.
After and hour plus of being packed in at the front of the stage I moved to the upstairs level to get a look from above. What I found was a teeming mass of people freaking out in the more spacious upper area. At this point in the show, defining when a song began and ended became elusive as the extended improvisations negated song structure. The crowd reaction was better upstairs where people had room to spread out and let their hair down. Some looked like they were performing a ghost dance. They were clearly in the music.
Ironically, the one song I recognized was a cover of King Crimson's "Thela Hun
Ginjeet." The primitive descending bass line was great to hear at a high volume. After the set I had time to reflect on
Les's bass playing. It was undoubtedly superb but seemed less prominent than his bass playing in Primus. Aside from some highly creative solos, his bass playing was often a lesson in tasteful comping. I really enjoyed his bass work as part of a collaborative group performance. The Fancy Band returned for a few words with the crowd and one more song before calling it a night.
Gabby LaLa, Mike Dillon, Les Claypool
I learned a few things while seeing Les Claypool that night. One thing was that a sitar through a
wah pedal sounds an awful lot like Frampton Comes Alive!. I also learned that the jam band format can really work in the right hands. And after Les talked to the audience during the encore, I learned that the man had played an amazing two hour long set with a broken pinky.
Where's Paul Harvey when you need him?
Ram's Head Live