Col. Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains, The Roxy, Boston – 9/29
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Bucket of Bernie Brains (especially given the musicians who comprise it) is how surprisingly wank-free and cohesive it is, despite the enormous potential for a full-tilt, cosmic brain frying. Oh, it's heady as hell, mind you, and much of it is terribly inaccessible to those who prefer that their jams get from A to B before the ganja wears off, but strangely, the confluence of ideas on display here seems to click far more comfortably than in say, the messy Oysterhead, the too-tethered, song-deficient Holy Mackerel and, to be honest, even the revamped Primus. This project will likely stay just that – a fun project – but it's the most enjoyable post-Primus-hiatus Les Claypool collaboration out there, with the exception of (when it's on and all systems are go) the Frog Brigade.
I had an opportunity to speak with Les a week before the show, and the erudite, marvelously articulate Claypool confirmed my own initial reaction to The Big Eyeball in the Sky: it’s surprising how tightly arranged and song oriented the tunes are. Claypool claims the initial feeling (which was somewhat true of the Bucket’s first, frustratingly amorphous shows some time ago) was to approach it as an all-instrumental, Herbie Hancock/Headhunters style affair. It is thus exciting to hear four distinctive, slightly insane musicians (all of whose signature styles traffic in bent sounds and cosmic slop) restrain themselves enough to channel cohesive, melodic songs and then when the foundations are set, go off as far into orbit as expected. The best songs on Eyeball – "Tyranny of the Hunt," "48 Hours to Go," the frothy satire "Junior," the gristly instrumental "Elephant Ghost" – are cerebral jams disguised as organic melodies, but in hearing them, it's hard to tell the difference.
And what fun they are as live showpieces! This night's Roxy show was an improvisational blood rush that started out slowly (the band opened with an over-indulged "Hip Shot from the Slab," a boring oddity that sounds like Primus on mescaline) and steadily climbed to the point where every other minute was an exploratory, frisson-filled peak. It's not to say C2B3's two hour throwdown was flawless – they're still working out the kinks and have yet to let some songs breathe where they should – but the show was a triumph largely because it blew away fears that the Bucket of Bernie Brains would be a nightmarish shitstorm of competing sounds and otherworldly, prog-funk weirdness. So much of it was connected and clean – the audience felt able to keep up even though there was so much going on at once.
All of the classic Claypool staples were there, too: the shrill, ringmaster singing, the nonpareil costumes and chord changes, the wry, wiseacre demeanor (it was also Les' birthday, which added a fun and fancy free element to the proceedings). Thumping and churning in that funk-punk way he practically invented, Claypool right from the get go locked tightly with Brain – who, amusingly, is by default the ensemble's straight man, given the space-aliens-and-P-Funk company on stage – and the two created quite a chassis to support Buckethead's fits and bursts and Bernie Worrell's gooey organ. All four musicians were afforded ample improv space, but connected best as an ensemble on the straightforward funk ripper "48 Hours to Go," the giddy "Jackalope," and the avant-groove craziness of "Elephant Ghost," in which the musicians took turns in the pocket instead of swelling the jam all at once.
Fans of Claypool and Brain knew what to expect (tight insanity) and what sort of foundation to hope for, so it is the other two players who take on the less predictable roles in this four-man bug-out. Buckethead's sheer, blinding virtuosity is his best asset and his biggest detractor – the more you see and hear him perform, the more the space-alien, KFC bucket mystique fades away and the novelty of this slightly frightening weirdo wears off enough for you to focus on his ideas. They're not always cohesive, nor are they terribly engaging (some of his runs, quite frankly, sound like the unpleasant shrieks of cassette tapes being fast forwarded while played), but when he's hittin' the proverbial note, it's a sight and sound to behold: he takes on a mutated Steve Vai vibe with coarse, lacerating arpeggios and ridiculous flurries of sound, not to mention an uncanny, Hendrixian knack for coaxing animal noises out of his guitar. His soloing comes across best during a lull in the middle of a jam, as he waits for a dumping ground of inertia and tension and then cuts through it like a big blast of hot air. He held the audience rapt during his portion of "Elephant Ghost" (overall, the evening's high watermark), and dumptrucked a blizzard of dissonant notes during "48 Hours."
Not surprisingly, Bucket and Bernie have natural chemistry (with C2B3, far more sussed since their days together in the Praxis project), and in watching them holler back and forth at each other in the midst of a mathematic, Schleigho-like progression in "Junior," you can't help but wonder how mind-blowing a Buckethead-led "Maggot Brain" would be. (Yes, I know, hold on just a minute). "Mr. Head," as Claypool affectionately calls him, has in C2B3 found the best outlet yet for his knotty pyrotechnics, an improvement over his brief, stilted tenure in the Axl Rose Band and his erratic, focus-lacking solo jaunts and fun, but hideously overbaked stuff with Giant Robot. Claypool and C2B3 still give him space to do his Buckethead one man sound machine and robot dance schtick: he ran out with what appeared to be a Michael Jackson mask on and did the robot and a wacky dance during Claypool's requisite whamola solo, and later stepped up by himself to perform his usual cycle through classic rock teases, "Pure Imagination" and several themes from Star Wars. It's still a tasty, crowd-pleasing interlude, even if hearing him crank out "The Imperial March" and the main movie theme gets tired around the third time you hear it.
Bernie Worrell's involvement here is the more fascinating aspect, because his contributions are at the same time marvelously mischievous and surprisingly restrained, both typically forthright and uncharacteristically reticent. Half the time, he's sitting up there playing rhythm and funky, twisted fills with a "How the fuck did I get roped into this?" look about him, watching Claypool and Buckethead musically beat the hell out of one another. Others, he's improvising himself sick: he opened the show by stepping out solo in his purple grand poo-bah hat to carve jagged, splatty funk runs, and later, during the "Scott Taylor" encore, alternated syrupy organ solo spots with the full band's industrial-sounding charges. Despite the somewhat undernourished nature of his role, he's clearly having fun; as Claypool described him, he's a "salt," and the most relaxed member of C2B3 – this is the guy who made his name while indulging the spontaneous whims of George Clinton, David Byrne and countless others, don'cha know. While keeping step with the likes of Claypool and Buckethead would seem a daunting task, Worrell is obviously right at home, having been in orbit far longer than either of them.
As the strains of "Scott Taylor" devolved, a jaw-dropping left turn followed: Worrell began playing a chunky progression that sounded oddlyfamiliar, and became more so as Claypool, Brain and Buckethead began to drop out of the jam to let what he was playing rise to the surface. The claps and cheers began to swell with the "Maggot Brain" teasing, and the excitement level in the room grew exponentially palpable as…OK it's a tea…no, wait…still go…and there's Bucket…stepping up…and, holy shit, they're going to do it! As versions of "Maggot Brain" go (for reference purposes, this writer's all-time, non-P-Funk favorite being the 20-minute cobweb-clearer on Mike Watt's Ball-Hog or Tugboat? disc, starring J. Mascis), this one coasted on the thrill of surprise more than it triumphed musically. Buckethead took a little too long to launch and then, perhaps for curfew, it was wound down before any real fireworks started. It's the thought that counted, however, and the definitive C2B3 "Maggot Brain" is likely on the horizon.
All in all, it was a superb and surprisingly coherent evening of improv, and one that yielded another bonus: an introduction to the silly, pixieish Japanipop singer Gabby LaLa, who has the honor (?) of being the first non-Claypool entity to release an album on Prawn Song (thus making her Les' unofficial protege). After hearing Les describe her as a cross between Bjork and Yoko Ono, who knew what to expect? The result was a heavily bizarre and engaging set of tunes that gleaned Cibo Matto and Puffy AmiYumi style Japanese kiddie pop craziness but, in Zappaesque (and Claypoolian) fashion, bolstered it with throngs of virtuoso musicianship, both vocally and on a range of stringed instruments. Even better were her contributions to the C2B3 set itself: she stepped up during "Elephant Ghost" to shred some sitar alongside Buckethead, momentarily dispensing with the cuteness and revealing some serious, muscular chops behind all the Rainbow Brite glitter.