Review / photos: Primus bring wonderfully weird 'Chocolate Factory' to life at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
What went down at Ruth Eckerd Hall Wednesday was part brilliance and part insanity. To put it simply, Primus went Willy Wonka.
The band, known for South Park’s theme song and the 1995 hit Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver, presented “Primus and the Chocolate Factory,” a live incarnation of their latest album, Primus and the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble, an homage to the 1971 film starring Gene Wilder.
Frontman and bassist Les Claypool has long been obsessed with the film. The band covered the entire soundtrack at a gig on New Year's Eve 2013 in Oakland, leading them to record an entire album re-imagining it. Now, Claypool, a character himself, lives out his fantasy onstage and indulges in his own creative candyland night after night.
With no opener on the bill, Primus took the stage just after 8 p.m. Claypool immediately worked the crowd with his LED light, bone-thumping bass, muffled megaphone vocals and eccentric showmanship. They played an eight-song set that ran well over an hour.
There was The Last Salmon Man, which transitioned into a Pink Floyd-esque 10-plus-minute jam; Over the Falls, where Claypool’s twangy bass nearly sounded like a banjo; Eleven, which featured Claypool donning a pig mask; and crowd favorites, the impeccably drummed, My Name is Mud and Jerry Was a Race Car Driver.
Midway through Over the Falls, Claypool stopped to razz a girl in the front who was texting. He asked if she was sexting, or playing Words with Friends (which his wife loves), then expressed his bewilderment that she was still texting during this conversation. He finally exclaimed that she had the best seat in the house and to put down her phone and enjoy the show (he tried to take a pic with it but failed and gave it back). He then inquired about Clearwater, saying he walked around that day and didn’t see much except old-timers and said he’d much like to have a conversation with everyone, but instead would let his six-string do it.
After a brief intermission, things got pleasantly weird. The curtain lift revealed a stage set with giant inflatable Mario Bros.-style mushrooms, a projection screen, life-size lollipops and candy pieces. The Fungi Ensemble, a cellist and percussionist, backed the core trio, adding an orchestral layer for the scored set. Claypool appeared in full Wonka garb, top hat and orange hair included. He was the ringmaster in his own twisted circus.
Images of candy and hallucinogenic visuals streamed across the screen as the band delved into a hauntingly sinister rendition of Candy Man. The half-standing, half-sitting crowd welcomed the oddity unfolding before them. Sure it was bizarre, but it was also undoubtedly art. If you closed your eyes, Claypool’s bass (now an upright electric) still dug through with his signature strums.
Eerily dark yet fun Golden Ticket single-handedly encapsulated the essence of Primus meeting Willy Wonka. For a band whose catalog sounds much like theme music, it all made sense, however intentionally indulgent it was.
And then there were the two Oompa Loompas. Human bodies, clad in white jumpsuits and green shirts and HUMUNGOUS heads, entered the stage from opposite sides to meet in the middle and execute their trademark bounce. That happened four times, much to the crowd’s delight.
After the Wonka set, the band came back for a three-song encore including Mr. Knowitall and Southbound Pachyderm. The video for closer Here Come the Bastards featured clips of the Oompa Loompas in front of the Welcome to Clearwater sign, Ruth Eckerd Hall and tromping around the locale.
The whole thing was welcomingly weird, magical and full of Claypool’s personality. It seemed effortless on his part, and the stage almost too small to contain his creativity. His sideshow satisfied fans' sweet teeth with 2 1/2 hours of something for everyone. Covering such a peculiar album was a bold endeavor, but it totally worked and artistically captured the absurdity at the sweet, gooey center of the Wonka world, as well as Claypool’s vision (and, my god, his bone-rattling bass).
Writer’s note: Candy was eaten during the writing of this review.
-- Stephanie Bolling, tbt*