The arching porticos of the Royal Albert Hall usually host the cream of mainstream pop rock, or the peephole bra of opera’s heaving bosom. Last week, cult progressive gutter metallers Primus stormed London’s most Port-Out-Starboard-Home music hall, armed only with two giant astronauts and whole heap of Popeye cartoons. Ruth Booth headed along to catch the double-feature.
Six things we learned when Primus played in London:
1) Primus. The Royal Albert Hall. No matter how het up I get about live settings, this has to be the most surreal combination in history, leastways on the surface. It’s easy to miss that frontman Les Claypool pitches in leagues that see him play private parties for Barack Obama alongside Booker T, with Al Green air-bassing on the front row. Seriously. Still, it’s difficult to reconcile the same venue that’s hosted Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and the Proms with the tin-can, mind-bending, swamp gent trickster dream stuff of Primus. Though one venue staffer told me Opeth’s crowd were very polite.
2) Night one of the residency sees Primus revisit 1991’s seminal Sailing The Seas of Cheese in full. But this is …Cheese with a twist. ‘American Life’ drops into some serious Jean Michel Jarre type shit, and there’s ‘Tommy the Cat’ so triumphant, Claypool tips his hat to the rapturous applause. Those latecomers expecting to skip some assumed support for this first set must have been kicking themselves. That’s not to say last year’s Green Naugahyde, comprising the second set, doesn’t have a few surprises of its own. ‘The Eyes of the Squirrel’ gets all Pink Floyd, ‘Jilly’s On Smack’ is vibrant and disturbing, and even new album marmite moment ‘Green Ranger’ becomes unnervingly with the addition of Claypool’s nasal whine, some sneering double bass and a pig mask. ‘Tragedy’s A’Comin’ meanwhile has an astronaut on a horse. You had to be there.
3) The ubiquitous saluting astronauts from recent tours this time frame a screen showing a connoisseur’s selection of cartoons and stock library footage. Over two nights it showcases the likes of ‘Moron TV’ with clips from Captain Scarlet, ‘Southbound Pachyderm’ with… well, a pachyderm, and ‘Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers’ backed with cult UK black comedy Salad Fingers. Sometimes, during the extensive improvisation, you can catch Les Claypool just spinning out threads of, say, ‘Duchess and the Proverbial Mind Spread’ in time to clips from legendary sci-fi film Forbidden Planet. Sweet idea. Frankly, most gigs could be substantially improved by an interval of Popeye cartoons, particularly ones with cameos from Betty Boop.
Watch Primus perform ‘Tommy the Cat’ live at the Royal Albert Hall:
4) Night Two, and a more relaxed band toss out two sets of Greatest Hits, chockfull of tailored versions of Primus classics. Tick off all the favourites, from ‘Mr Krinkle’ to ‘Jerry Was A Racecar Driver’, and add extended, laid-back experimentation – via a couple of wee trips to The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (‘Fisticuffs’) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Voodoo Child’ (‘Harold of the Rocks’). It’s closer up on the second night we get a proper look, not just at how accomplished Claypool is with slap bass and double, but the underrated migraine-searing funk of guitarist Larry LaLonde, and Jay Lane’s needle tight drums. Most importantly, though, it’s a chance for full discursive analysis of Claypool’s bandy-legged dancing.
5) Aw Jeez. Don’t steal Les Claypool’s hat, please?
6) We all know the clichés about getting to this size of venue. And even though Les remarks how damn good looking the audience is with the Royal Albert Hall wrapped around them, he still hints these shows would be a good time to retire. Just jokes….right? It’s cool to see such easy virtuosity in these places without the hang-up of show-boating, fret-wanking, or sheer boredom on the dulled faces of those once-luminaries. It’s a reason to treasure Primus. And that’s why it’s so disappointing tonight to look across the photo pit and notice it is stubbornly sans video camera. Much as YouTube will no doubt pick up the slack, I hope I’m wrong. These two shows were a masterclass in something special. Though what it was exactly, I’m still not entirely sure.