The trippy trio known as Primus may have seemed an odd choice to play Sunken Garden Theater's first rock concert in five years Friday night. But upon further review, that decision couldn't have been much more appropriate.
Primus is a band you either get or you don't. When its singer dons a pig mask while taking a violin bow to his standing bass, or when its drummer debuts the band's new album in its entirety while wearing a monk robe, or when its fans yell "Primus sucks" as an affectionate compliment when other artists' fans wouldn't dream of doing such a thing, you don't question the tactics. You just roll with them.
So with one of the world's most renowned yet still somewhat underappreciated bassists in Les Claypool bringing his band to the historic and mostly-dormant-for-the-past-five-years downtown San Antonio venue, Primus kicked off its U.S. tour while rekindling hopes Sunken Gardens would resume hosting concerts on a regular basis.
Following a Deftones gig in 2012, Sunken Gardens was thought to undergo a multi-million dollar renovation project. But upon entering the Gardens for Primus, nothing had changed. The remodeling has yet to begin while talks of possible increased security fees surfaced, and attempts to broaden the venue into a festival-hosting monstrosity that would make up for the loss of the Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in 2008 have evidently stalled. Though Sunken Gardens continues to host Fiesta's Taste of New Orleans and the KISS-FM Margarita Pour-off on an annual basis, Primus' return signaled the end of five years of wasted time that could have benefited the local music scene.
Alas, Primus' "Ambushing the Storm" tour featured two sets with a 30-minute intermission and no opening acts. Taking the stage at 7:45 p.m., Claypool, guitarist Larry "Ler" LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander began with a 67-minute set of 11 classics. Unfortunately, Primus played most of the evening in darkness or only lit up occasionally by background video screens that portrayed everything from the American flag, Statue of Liberty and even the band's humorous 1993 video when Claypool broke out the pig face for "Mr. Krinkle" (AXS footage below).
Other highlights included third song "Too Many Puppies," Claypool's metaphor for soldiers dying at war, and "Pudding Time."
Claypool didn't address the crowd, let alone mention the words "San Antonio," until Primus was about to break into its 10th song, another 1993 favorite from Pork Soda in "My Name is Mud" (AXS footage here). When Claypool wasn't amazing an estimated crowd of 2,300 by slapping the bass with his thumb and causing the instrument to reverberate throughout the Gardens, he showed his sense of humor in the rare moment in which he spoke.
"We have a new record out," Claypool declared after "My Name is Mud's" performance. "I don't know if you've heard it. I don't know if you downloaded it for free, which will prevent Ler from sending his kids to college. But there's a rumor that we're going to play it in its entirety for the first time right after the break, which starts right after this song."
With that, Primus ended its first set with "Jerry was a Race Car Driver" at 8:52 p.m. Thirty minutes later, Primus unveiled The Desaturating Seven, a concept album that dropped three weeks before the gig on Sept. 29 and is based on the children's book "The Rainbow Goblins." Mostly a story-telling piece of work as opposed to a record that typically showcases Primus' unique ability to mesh rock with funk and psychedelic sounds, the 37-minute performance of seven tunes (setlist below) -- which featured Alexander drumming in a monk's robe -- had the crowd looking on curiously, simply happy they were able to watch a show at Sunken Gardens again, rather than having many beats to rock along to.
Primus left room for two encores. Stunningly, however, arguably its most popular tune "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" was left off the table. Instead, the trifecta broke into "Southbound Pachyderm" from the same album as "Wynona" in 1995's Tales From the Punchbowl. In fact, The Desaturating Seven is not only Primus' first album since 2011 but its first featuring Alexander back on drums since that output 22 years ago.
The second and final encore, "Here Come the Bastards," capped "An Evening With Primus," with Claypool repeatedly bellowing the lyrics "Here they come" before telling the crowd, "There you go." Claypool then tipped his Fedora to the audience -- and the curtain closed at 10:20 p.m., a half hour prior to the scheduled end of the performance that had been announced by promotion company Twin Productions.
Without taking away from LaLonde and Alexander, Claypool's bass playing has always been the main attraction of Primus' unorthodox music and style. In that sense, Primus delivered a clinic on musicianship and demonstrated how its career has flourished for nearly three decades. The fact Sunken Garden Theater was the site of it all was a bonus and hopefully indicated a sign of more shows to come there, much like the good ol' days of San Antonio's music scene. At the same time, the omission of one of the band's staples plus a new album that is more a reason to continue being mesmerized by Claypool's skills but not much of an excuse to rock out left some longing for more.
SETLIST (Part 1): "Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers," "Last Salmon Man," "Too Many Puppies," "American Life," "Jilly's on Smack," "Mr. Krinkle," "The Toys Go Winding Down," "Pudding Time," "On the Tweek Again," "My Name is Mud," "Jerry was a Race Car Driver." (Part 2): The Desaturating Seven album: "The Valley," "The Seven," "The Trek," "The Scheme," "The Dream," "The Storm," "The Ends?" Encores: "Southbound Pachyderm," "Here Come the Bastards"