Primus concert review

by John Heyer (

H.O.R.D.E. Festival at the Alpine Valley Amphitheatre, East Troy, WI. August 2, 1997.

I was very happy Primus was coming to East Troy, Wisconsin's Alpine Valley Amphitheater. For the last 10 years, I had lived in Pittsburgh, which Primus had visited only once since their birth over 13 years ago. But now I lived in Southern Wisconsin, and was only a 15 minute drive from the artifical ski slopes of East Troy. I wasn't happy about Primus playing a festival ($40), but was curious about how Morphine and Beck would sound live.

As I entered East Troy's Alpine Valley Theater, I quickly got the feeling that the crowd was not there for Primus. Although someone had spotted me (by myself as I had moved to the area only a week before), and asked me about Primus's set list, I felt almost embarrassed to be wearing a Primus T-Shirt, as of the 2 thousand or so that showed up for festival's start promptly at 3:30, I was the only person doing so. The overall atmosphere of the HORDE wasn't exactly my style: tents peddling dead-head merchandise along side stands selling $5 tacos. Plus, I had hoped to tape the show, but the guards were doing pretty diligent pat-downs and the 90+ heat would have made it a bit uncomfortable to hide a recorder "down there". But, I knew I was going to get to see Primus and Morphine later that day, so I was fairly optimistic. The first hour or so was fairly boring: Kula Shakur opened, but after watching their first 2 songs I was pretty bored. Lionel trains had a display which was pretty cool, and MSN was providing internet access. Around 4:30 though, I stumbled towards the 3rd stage to see Morphine's Mark Sandman singing. I was a little puzzled why Morphine was on the 3rd stage, but figured that this was their set.

But then I noticed something strange was going on: next to Sandman stood another bassist: hair slicked back with highly stylized sun glasses...yes, it was Les! I had only missed a few minutes of their set, which Sandman then introduced as the Morphine/Les Claypool quintet. Everyone seemed to be having a good time: for a crowd of under 200, the new group played two songs, each over 7 minutes in length. The opportunity for Les to solo was plentiful, but during the songs he kept very laid back with his 4 string, providing cool bass grooves for Sandman to operate with Lyrics and a 2-1 guitar/bass. The songs were Morphine rarities, neither of which I had heard of. During breaks, Les joked around and played "Macarena" on a keyboard. You could tell their was deep respect on both sides, and the similarities with Primus and Morphine are actually quite amazing: Trios led by a masterful, distinct bassist/vocalist, a second man known for unorthodox playing, and a hard-hitting, straight forward drummer. After two very cool songs, Les trotted off stage and Morphine attempted to continue their set. However, they were rather rudely interrupted by the band on adjacent stage two, and as the band walked off stage, Sandman threw up his arms as if to say "What the Fuck?", then shrugged and waved goodbye to the crowd. As Les walked off stage, a small group yelled "Primus Sucks!", reminding me that Primus and Morphine would give their separate performances later. In the meantime, I felt extremely privileged to see two of my favorite bands play together.

As the emcee announced Primus, people began pouring in towards the stage. The East Troy layout was a little odd - a seated, covered amphitheater with seating for maybe 3k, followed by a metal gate and a few acres of field. You could tell this was the first major act of the night - seat ticketholders seemed to be mostly Young/Beck fans, and the attempts of a few lawn ticket holders to jump the fence occurred with about a 50% success rate. The seating area had gone from 1/10th filled to 2/3rds in a matter of minutes. Those of us without seated tickets (and without enough balls to jump the fence) ended up at the front and center of the lawn, and this was undoubtedly were the serious Primus fans gathered (a few shouts of "You Suck" could be heard nearby).

The set unexpectedly began with "Ground Hog's Day" (I was expecting and hoping for "John the Fisherman"), and was OK. "Ground Hog's" isn't exactly my favorite song, but the faster parts towards the end sounded great live and started the head banging among the more obvious fans. The next song, however, was a totally unexpected treat. As Les introduced the band, he slowly strummed a few minutes for quiet lines before bursting into "To Defy the Laws of Tradition". Needless to say, this song sounded awesome and really got the crowd moving, as a 20 person or so mosh pit started to form shortly behind the 3 rows of fans atop the fence (despite East Troy's strict anti-mossing policy). I was especially happy to hear this one played, as it was not part of the typical set list and had solidified Primus as my favorite band some 3 years ago. Although I didn't get involved with the Pit (it centered around a few 240+ farm boys who thought they were in football camp), I and most of the others standing at the base of the lawn couldn't help but do out little jigs and what-not. The critics had mocked the attempt of dead-inspired dances to Les's bass, and I would have to agree. A few were trying to use their hands to try to express the music or something, and in my opinion it just wasn't working when done to a Carl Thompson slap bass. The majority of the fans seemed to be somewhat aware of Primus's metal roots, and stuck to the standard quick-groove stuff you'd expect to find more at a Helmet concert.

As wonderful a surprise as "Tradition" was, it was almost forgotten next to the biggest surprise of the night, "Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread". I didn't think much of the studio version of this song until driving on a hot night in late July when I realized what a great, catchy groove it had. I was nearly dumbfounded as to how good this song sounded live: practically everyone was out of their seats, doing Chubby Checkerish twist motions smoothly despite the odd 11/4 time signature. The band seemed to be having fun with it too: although I had heard of Les's subtlety at pervious dates, he did several spins in addition to the standard foot-stomping. I deeply hope this song will become part of the standard set list on later tours.

The set continued with the performance I had heard so much about: Tweekers/ Highball with the Devil. I must say it lived up to the talk, although "Highball" sounded somewhat muted. That was a typical problem throughout the set: although the instruments sounded great, the Les was barely audible in terms of singing. Maybe it was just because I was in a bad spot (200 feet from the stage), or perhaps the acoustics of East Troy didn't suit his unusual voice. But Tweekers was great of course, obviously what the fellow bastards around me enjoyed the most.

The rest of the show was pretty routine: "Sailing the Seas of Cheese" and "Over the Falls" allowed Les to show off the upright, and the more musical types in the audience seemed impressed. "Jerry was a Racecar Driver" and "My Name is Mud" were obvious crowd pleasers, although by this time the pit had all but disappear (one guy picked a fight with a security guard, and the pit was now surrounded by about 10 security guards with a only a few very tame dancers inside.

The two other songs from "Brown": "Golden Boy" and "Shake Hands with Beef" turned out to be duds. "Golden Boy" barely got anything moving, which to me wasn't a surprise considering it was one of my least favorite tracks on the album. "Beef" really only got a good reaction from the bass players in the audience --many were doing a slap-along-- but failed to do much else. The crowd seemed be very carefree, and was looking for danceable songs. Although the catchy bass riff on "Beef" got in my head after a few weeks, the song really doesn't jump out as being particularly exciting. As the show wound down, "Puddin' Taine" (my favorite song from Brown) was replaced with "Pudding Time" (one of my least favorite Primus tracks. At this point, I was a little disappointed.

The Band closed out with the Tommy the Cat/Awakening combination which was now 7 months old, and added something new. The first 5 minutes of the song had completely new lyrics, unfortunately the acoustics were so poor I couldn't understand any of them. Something about a farmer...At one point Les waved to the crowd and nobody waved back. He again waved and got a response, but only the handful of true fans really knew what was going on. They then went into Tommy with Les doing the infamous slap bass riff, then Awakening, then the 27 seconds of Brain. Les playfully introduced Brain as being turned down for an autograph by a female from one of the other bands, and told the crowd Brain needed to vent his frustrations. He did, and I was quite impressed. BTW- Brain is a great drummer and his performance on Mud, Tradition, and Jerry were right up with Herb if you ask me. I had heard of Brain's simplistic trap set, but the one he was using appeared to be fairly large, from what I could tell. Ler was pretty much his old self with the excepting of his newly dyed jet black hair, but pretty much kept his had down throughout the whole thing. I definitely feel the show would have been better had it been at night, not it's new 6:45 time in order to make room for Beck. Morphine gave and impressive performance later at 9 on the second stage, and I deeply yearned Primus could have taken that spot instead. But still, it was overall a good show, although the $40 HORDE wasn't worth the money for Primus alone. The other acts of Kula Shakur, Bens Folds Five, Beck, and Morphine really fit into the hard to describe category Primus does, so the entire shows overall left me at least satisfied. I didn't much care for the atmosphere, massive quantity of people, and crappy acoustics, but musically, I couldn't image any summer festival better than the HORDE. Still, I am anxiously waiting to see Primus play the clubs this fall, as I think it's a better environment for both them and me.

The Cheesy Primus Page || Ram Samudrala ||