(Photos: Yousef Hatlani)
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Les Claypool joked last year that the three original members of Primus regrouped and cut a Willy Wonka cover album in order to sell chocolate. While it was a fun way for a long-in-the-tooth musician to rag on the digitalization of music in the new millennium, Claypool and his cohorts really would have Wonka-styled candy bars in Mr. Krinkle, Professor Nutbutter and Bastard Bars varieties at the merch table throughout their tour. But it’s evident that the real reason for Primus and the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble, the original trio’s first album together since 1995, was that the band had so much fun performing Wonka songs at their annual Bay Area NYE throwdown a year ago.
To promote the candy-themed record, Primus churned out a month-long tour around the United States that culminated by the end of November. Thankfully for the Pacific Northwest, the band also decided upon a two-show finale in Portland and Seattle during the first days of 2015. Claypool has also cited the album and subsequent tour as an excuse for him to goof off in a Wonka top hat, but the band made the wise decision to split their shows into two sets, with standard Primus songs in the first and the introduction to the splendor of the Chocolate Room in the second.
Anyone who showed up late to the ornate Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall was bound to miss part of that first set.
Without an opening act to warm the stage, the band appeared promptly at the listed showtime. Thrashing and thumping their way through Primus classics such as “Mr. Krinkle,” “My Name Is Mud,” and “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” the trio of Les Claypool, Larry LaLonde and Tim “Herb” Alexander were dressed simply (other than Claypool donning a pig mask while drawing a bow against his bass during “Mr. Krinkle”), their bodies lit from below and an enormous curtain serving as the backdrop. Claypool didn’t speak to the crowd often, but when he did, he hammed it up. The unconventional bassist greeted the audience with “Portland, you big ole greasy hunk of folk.” He’d go on to tease the crowd that, at this point, the Rose City exclusively known for its famed Voodoo Donuts and “Portlandia,” drawing some good-natured boos.
At the classy Arlene Schnitzer, food and drink is forbidden in the theater itself (though there was frequent enough plumes of marijuana smoke), leaving the multi-tiered lobby packed with thirsty fans during set break, some of whom even appeared to have showered that day. Many $10 chocolate bars and some vinyl records (there are five “golden” records circulating somewhere out there) changed hands at the merch table. Back in the theater, a group of fans struck up a “Primus sucks!” chant, recalling the band’s slogan from back in their early years.
Behind the curtain, the familiar refrain from “Pure Imagination” groaned out from a cello and the theater re-filled. As the curtain was lifted, the stage revealed its transformation into pure eye candy. Giant inflatable mushrooms flanked the stage, with glowing lollipops rising up like shrubs. Alexander was wedged into an elaborate drum kit. Most importantly, a large video screen hung behind the band, broadcasting warped and looped snippets from the iconic Gene Wilder movie. Primus’ core trio was joined by the Fungi Ensemble of cellist Sam Bass (from Claypool’s Frog Brigade) and percussionist Mike Dillon, whose work on marimba and vibraphone gave Primus and the Chocolate Factory much of its darkly whimsical flair.
The Wonka set followed the film chronologically, with early visuals on “Candy Man” and the infectiously-performed “Golden Ticket” heightening the experience even without the use of psychedelic substances. The buttoned-down Claypool, still sporting his spectacles and a bowler hat from the first set, finally donned a Wonka getup complete with orange fright wig during “Pure Imagination.” The Oompa Loompa interludes, which grew tiresome on the album, were enhanced live by two dancers in oversized orange and green heads wandering out on stage each time. And while the trippy red lighting and unsettling visuals helped “Semi-Wondrous Boat Ride” get creepy, no one could be as frightening as Gene Wilder with his ominous rhyming, though the sputtering and burping “Wonkmobile” was made all the more marvelous with the sudsy movie clip playing n the background.
For their encore, Primus utilized the video screen to full effect on their original material. The Fungi Ensemble even joined them again for a lengthy, jammed out “Southbound Pachyderm,” complete with negative-image visuals of an elephant bouncing on a trampoline and interspersed with stop-motion animation from that song’s music video. And the night was closed out with the romp of “Here Come the Bastards,” during which an Oompa Loompa reappeared, this time on the video screen walking around iconic Portland locations like the Burnside Bridge and Powell’s Books.
As the crowd filtered out, one keyed up fan gesticulated wildly and shouted about offering people a squeegee to mop up their faces. The two-set performance wasn’t exactly face-melting, but it was a treat to see Primus’ core lineup in top form. The Wonka stuff may have been a confection, but the “greasy hunk of folk” in Portland lapped up Primus’ original seas of cheese.