Primus Unlocks a World of Pure Imagination
Photos by Jack Gorman
Primus Bayou Music Center April 30, 2015
When funk-metal weirdoes Primus released an album of cover tunes reimagining the soundtrack from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory last year, it was welcomed by the trio's loyal fans as another fine addition to the band's catalogue of strange experiments. It was cool, sure, and interesting, but not exactly the sort of thing you'd like to jam out to in the truck.
But Primus pulling off a Willy Wonka live show? For Primus fans, this was an unmissable prospect. Decades after its release, the classic Gene Wilder film still captivates, tempting viewers into a fully formed world inside the chocolate factory. And what better guide to that world could there be than bass-guitar godhead and noted crazy person Les Claypool?
If you were planning on attending just one Primus tour this decade, this would've been The One. The music kicked off around 8 p.m. at Bayou Music Center with Primus essentially opening for themselves, playing some old chestnuts in a relatively low-key fashion in front of the curtain. The band opened with the hard-funk oddity "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweakers," which featured a terrific triplet-pattern solo from Claypool, and meandered through stuff like "Frizzle Fry" and "Lee Van Cleef," highlighted by the polyrhythmic games between the bassist and the drummer, Tim "Herb" Alexander.
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After Primus polished off their opening set with their beloved cuts "My Name is Mud" and "Jerry Was a Racecar Driver," the curtains closed and anticipation began to build. Fans headed for the bar, the bathrooms and the smoking pen, and they did it in a hurry. No one wanted to be stuck outside or in line when the curtain dropped on Primus' chocolate factory.
When it did, it was happily evident right away that the performance was going to be something special. Flanked by enormous mushrooms, licorice ropes and lollipops, Primus appeared in full Wonka regalia, augmented by the cello and percussion of the Fungi Ensemble. As a bewigged Claypool drew his bow across his gorgeous, electric stand-up bass for the first time, the room damn near fell silent. The general mood in the air was that shit was about to get epic.
What followed was a psychedelic, bizarre and bass-heavy reimagining of Wonka's world, ramping the charming eccentricity of the classic film into full-blown insanity. The music could be terrifying, as on the band's crushing take on "The Candy Man," or strangely heartfelt, like the strange and soft "Cheer Up, Charlie." By the time the xylophone solo arrived in their manic, whacked-out version of "Golden Ticket," the audience was fully aware that they were witnessing something pretty damn memorable. As a live spectacle, the weird virtuosity of Primus and the whimsical strangeness of Willy Wonka went together like chocolate and peanut butter.
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There were Oompa Loompas, of course, who made repeated appearances in the Wonka set's second half. More impressive was the band's digital video backdrop, which looped and contorted scenes from the Wilder film to make them as odd and unsettling as possible. So closely did the clips warp to the music that some hero must've been playing the video file like an instrument somewhere out there in the dark.
The video manipulations were most effective during the band's renditions of the movie's signature tune, "Pure Imagination." These clips, naturally, focused on Wilder's unforgettable portrayal of the titular chocolatier, especially his stiff-legged introduction. His final ride in the glass elevator was deployed to splendid effect on the closing epic, "Farewell Wonkites," which took on a spacey, Floydian feel. It was hard not to imagine some kid with a head full of acid out there in the balcony, losing his mind to the performance and loving it.
By the end of the Wonka suite, the audience had morphed from polite to ecstatic. Primus had taken us somewhere it had been impossible to go, previously. The transformation did not go unnoticed by Claypool.
"I always enjoy coming to Houston, but I don't remember Houston being this fired up before," he said, happily. "It just goes to show you the power of Gene Wilder!"
And with that, Primus finished us off with an encore suite that ended with a pummeling version of "Here Come the Bastards," replete with percussive assistance from the Fungi Ensemble. On the big screen behind Primus, an Oompa Loompa frolicked down Allen Parkway and through Minute Maid Park. That drew the biggest cheers of the night. Primus had brought Willy Wonka to town. Shame they couldn't stay longer.
Personal Bias: Nerds Rope fanatic.
The Crowd: People who remember the '90s very fondly.
Overheard in the Crowd: "Yes, this is magic."
Random Notebook Dump: One addled concert-goer was called out by Claypool early on for shouting out a request for "Timmy the Cat."
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