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Col. Claypool hosts a rock circus

By Greg Cahill

It's a carnival of carnality, a sideshow of visceral funk-metal in which the bassist dons a malevolent monkey mask and thrashes about on stage like a crazed simian while banging on a six-foot aluminum synth-stick and serenading a guitarist dressed in a freakishly expressionless white plastic mask and an inverted KFC bucket hat and who delivers backwards kung fu kicks and an aggressive nunchaku exhibition when less imaginative string benders might offer just a blazing guitar solo.

Welcome to Colonel Claypool's Bucket of Bernie Brains. Forty-one-year-old bassist, singer, songwriter, ringmaster Les Claypool--who lives outside of Occidental on a patch of land he's dubbed Rancho Relaxo--brought his traveling rock 'n' roll circus to the Warfield Theater for a pre-Halloween gala where even the often bizarrely costumed San Francisco audience failed to upstage the band.

On the last leg of a 23-city tour that concluded Nov. 7 in Seattle, Claypool (best known as the head honcho of Primus) and his cohorts--avant-rock and onetime Guns N' Roses guitarist Buckethead (aka Brian Carroll), keyboardist Bernie Worrell of Funkadelic and drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia of Primus--explored the fringes of underground funk through layers of improvisational jams. All the material was built around songs from Claypool's latest side project The Big Eyeball in the Sky (Prawn Song/Interscope), a recently released CD rife with anti-war, anti-authority and anti-establishment lyrics.

It was rock 'n' roll spectacle at its best from four musicians who over the years have blended musical excellence and cosmic foolery.

The set started when Worrell, bathed in pillars of pot smoke, mounted the stage alone, like a preacher at the pulpit, to take his position behind a Hammond B-3 organ and a bank of synthesizer keyboards. During the next 10 minutes he gave a soulful master class in Western music, moving seamlessly from Bach to blues to gospel to funk to free jazz.

Worrell, the 60-year-old funk innovator and veteran of the P-Funk mob, joined George Clinton's Funkadelic with the landmark 1970 album Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, which served as a template for a generation of young punk funksters, including Claypool, who emerged in the late '80s as a vital movement that also spawned the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Faith No More. These days, Worrell is stricken by severe arthritis and wracked with pain that has restricted his performances, so Saturday night was a real treat.

On the other hand, the supremely strange Buckethead is about as limber as you can get. On stage, he dipped into a trick bag of avant-rock licks that ranged from apocalyptic power chords to rapid-fire riffs that have become the trademark of his sci-fi-inspired robotic persona.

For his part, percussionist Brain gave a textbook lesson in tasteful dynamics that culminated with a show-stopping 10-minute drum solo on a trap set and electronic pads that emitted gamelan-like tones. It was arguably the night's musical high-water mark.

Orchestrating the whole affair, Claypool--named last month by Bass Player as one the magazine's 30 "ground-shaking gurus"--was a kenetic swirl of energy, powering up thumb-thumping bass lines and performing his patented circular duck walk a he egged the band to stretch its boundaries. The overall result was reminiscent of Frank Zappa's mid- to late-'70s fusion bands, no surprise since Primus has shown a strong Zappa influence. But in Claypool's hands, the rapport between these marquee players had a light, playful quality, even when they had the audience by the throat.

Even the opening act reflected Claypool's fascination with experimental music. Gabby Lala, a virtual unknown, offered a set of precocious Hello Kitty-inspired experimental-pop. Slated soon to become the first non-Primus-related act signed to Claypool's Prawn Song label, Lala plucked a ukulele to the accompaniment of ambient tape loops and, in a high-pitched little girl voice, sang kiddie rhymes that admonished the crowd to brush their teeth after eating sweets. The audience was less than impressed, but it became evident that Claypool might be on to something when Lala, a longtime student at the Ali Akbar School of Music in San Rafael, picked up a sitar (which she held like a guitar) for an surreal session that featured a masked Claypool on electro-acoustic stand-up bass, Worrell on harmonium and Brain on percussion.

His emerging role as a producer underscores Claypool's evolution as an artist who already has established himself as the premiere bassist of the alterna-nation and a major anti-pop icon of the South Park generation--he even wrote the popular Comedy Central animated show's angular theme song.

There seems to be no containing him these days.

In addition to his current outing with his Bucket of Bernie Brains, Claypool has completed two Primus tours this year, though the band is on a five-year hiatus from the studio. On Nov. 16, fans will be treated to the only concert DVD from Primus, Hallucino-Genetics Live 2004, filmed at the last US show in June at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.

Clearly, Claypool--who popped up, along with Brain, on several songs on Tom Waits' new album, Real Gone (Anti)--is hitting his creative stride. He's a ringmaster who cracks one smart whip.

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Web extra to the November 3-9, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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