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Prime Primus

Primus
Muira Smith

From Sea to Shining Shoreline: Primus (from left, Brain, Larry Lalonde and Les Claypool) joins the H.O.R.D.E. tour on their own quirky terms.

While the summer multigroup tours enforce musical differences, Primus shatters categories

By Gina Arnold

IN THIS AGE of cloned rock bands, Primus is peculiar, and for that reason alone deserves respect. From the ironic chant of its fans ("Primus Sucks!") to its obsession with seafood, from its fine musicianship to its frenetic and original sound, Primus is a quirky, one-of-a-kind outfit whose perennial popularity is proof that people aren't always quite as sheeplike in their tastes as the music industry would have you believe.

Of course, the trouble with having such a distinctive sound is that people either like it or they don't. You might find yourself enjoying a tune by Bush or Jewel, even if you despise the act. The same cannot be said of Primus.

A trio led by bassist/vocalist Les Claypool, Primus plays a rhythm-heavy mix that consists of a fast, riffy bass lead topped by Claypool's twitch, nasal-nonsense vocalizing. The people who love it tend to be 17-year-old boys attracted to the slightly off-color nature of songs such as "My Name Is Mud," "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and, of course, 1995's big hit, "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" (which, despite its philosophical problems, sure spawned an awesome video and was nominated for a Grammy).

The other problem with uniqueness is that it has nowhere to go. The new Brown Album (Interscope) is Primus' sixth, and--alas!--it breaks no new ground, either musically or lyrically. "Fisticuffs" and "Shake Hands With Beef" are adeptly played and quick-witted as always--like nursery rhymes crossed with metal--but as usual, they lack tunes.

"Golden Boy" boasts nice guitar riffs, while the quietly sinister "Over the Falls" nears Meat Puppets territory. The album also contains many goofy, vaudeville-style songs: "Puddin' Taine" and "Hats Off." It was recorded entirely on vintage analog equipment, which is a nice idea, but is not that noticeable when played on CD.

Live, however, Primus is one of the few bands that can win over even the most adamantine detractor. What sounds boring and repetitive on record is strangely riveting in performance, thanks to Claypool's hyperkinetic stage presence and a high degree of musicianship not usually seen in the annals of low-brow rock. Particularly amusing is the wide range of music the band likes to Primusize: the Residents, Pink Floyd, XTC, the Meters.

That's why Primus is smart to ally itself with the big multigroup tours that fill up arenas during the summer months. In 1993, Primus headlined Lollapalooza--a move that certainly gained them a much higher profile, as well as many new, unexpectedly impressed fans (me among them). This year, however, Primus is on the road with H.O.R.D.E. (Horizons of Rock, Developing Everywhere), the Lollapalooza-like multigroup tour conceived by Blues Traveler's John Popper (July 11 at Shoreline).

Primus seems like an odd choice for H.O.R.D.E. The band's fanbase consists primarily of teenaged boys, while H.O.R.D.E. aims itself at a mildly hippieish, classic-rock crowd. In years past, H.O.R.D.E.'s lineup has included a host of fairly derivative bands--Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, Phish, the fake Stones act of the Black Crowes, the fake Jimi Hendrix act of Lenny Kravitz and the fake Janis Joplin act of Joan Osborne. Primus isn't fake anything, which, given its live expertise, may mean that it will go over bigger than any other group on the tour.

Moreover, Primus' inclusion may be an indication that the hard and fast pigeonholes that radio has attempted to impose on rock are finally degenerating. Primus, once on Lollapalooza, is now in H.O.R.D.E. territory, while former H.O.R.D.E. participants the Black Crowes are now part of the more hippieish Furthur Festival--and so on.

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One of many Primus pages.

The Church of Les Claypool.

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ON THE OTHER HAND, the long-term effect of these multigroup tours is not all to the good. Granted, the tours offer good value for the money, but they are also somewhat rigid in their musical definitions. God forbid anyone in the audience should see an act whose music might challenge his or her taste--or, more importantly, the preconceived demographic of the audience.

Besides Primus, this year's H.O.R.D.E. tour, for example, features Neil Young, who is currently promoting a new live album and a movie titled Year of the Horse. Lollapalooza has long tried to get Young on its bill, but he is really a much more classic-rock performer, and by sticking to his own audience demographic, he is merely reinforcing that label.

Meanwhile, Lollapalooza, which reaches Shoreline on Aug. 16, has gone almost totally electronic--featuring the Orb and Prodigy, as well as rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg and industrio-metal Tool--thus ensuring itself a young and pierced crowd. The more mainstream three-chord punk bands that used to play Lollapalooza now have their own traveling festival, the WARPED tour. (It plays San Francisco on July 6 with Social Distortion, Pennywise, the Descendents, former Lollapalooza mainstagers the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and about a million other bands.)

The scariest development of all, however, is Lilith Fair (July 8, at Shoreline), featuring Sarah McLachlan, Suzanne Vega, Tracy Chapman, Jewel and others. On this all-female tour, women artists are lumped together into one big, soft, folky, estrogen-riddled mass o' woe. Lilith Fair wouldn't be quite so depressing if it weren't for the undeniable fact that this year's Lollapalooza, H.O.R.D.E. and WARPED bills now feature no women artists whatsoever.

Primus is to be commended for moving freely among these rigidly defined camps. The band's music may be a bit of a caricature of itself, but at least it can't be labeled, and no one else can lay claim to Primus' sound.

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From the July 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro.

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