There was a time not that long ago when the world was just becoming familiar with a little band called Tool. Los Angeles residents and show attendees of the time were already clued in to what was happening, but most in the U.S. and the world at large were just getting exposed to the band and its singer with the sharp, haunting voice, Maynard James Keenan, through the band’s claymation videos regularly played on MTV. Twenty years on, Tool is a musical juggernaut. One of the top grossing touring rock bands in all of the world, and one of the most respected and beloved bands heavy music has ever known. Capable of rocking with the hardest of metallic crunch, but still accessible enough that those that struggle with metal’s often guttural, monster truck vocals aren’t dissuaded.
All photos by Marv Watson
In the time since, Keenan set up not one, but two other bands, relocated from Los Angeles to Arizona and started his own series of vineyards and wineries. Initially those new bands were thought to be side projects, but quickly each—A Perfect Circle and Puscifer—took on a life of their own and amassed a gigantic audience and following all their own. After a long dormancy, A Perfect Circle resumed touring in 2010, while Puscifer continued to release new music and evolve into both a highly compelling desert road-infused style of art-rock and simultaneously a highly entertaining series of costumed characters and stage antics. At the center of all of this was Keenan, relentlessly reinventing himself, forever insisting on artistic purity regardless of what he was working on. It’s been twenty years since most of us first heard his voice, and unbelievably he’s now fifty years old. In celebration of his birthday, Keenan orchestrated a two-night stand at LA’s Greek Theatre appropriately dubbed Cinquanta. The show promised sets by A Perfect Circle, Puscifer and recently reunited Keenan favorite Failure. The fans lucky enough to have scored tickets got a lot more than just merely that. Without devolving into excessive hyperbole, simply put this was a special event of the highest caliber, likely not to be recreated after the second night performance ever again.
This was a show without changeovers or set breaks. Each band’s gear on was on stage the whole time, the only significant adjustment was the switch out of the drum riser between tracks performed by Failure and A Perfect Circle (Puscifer’s drum kit sat at back stage left). Otherwise, the bands effortless took turns, alternating mostly every 3 songs. The band members not currently in play mostly sat at a series of campfire-style lawn chairs, but also occasionally joined the active band in auxiliary roles. Andy Kauffman-esque comedian Neil Hamburger introduced the evening complaining about the “blues rock” the band was about to play and cackled, “Enjoy the show fuckers.” The night began with every member of all three bands on stage with Failure up first. They started with their classic “The Nurse Who Loved Me” (famously covered by A Perfect Circle on their album Thirteenth Step) with the special treat of Keenan singing the song’s second verse and joining for the chorus. After that, the non-Failure band members sat around the stage sipping wine while the band’s Ken Andrews, Greg Edwards & Kellii Scott played “Saturday Savior” and “Dirty Blue Balloons.” As we discussed at length in our review of their reunion show, there is something pristine and untouchable about Failure’s own angle on alternative rock. Their approach is edgy without being sloppy, palatable without being saccharine and thankfully, lyrically witty and inventive. Andrews’ voice has a sharp and unique tone to it, making even the mid-tempo portions of songs jump off the page.
The drum riser was dragged to the back, a new one pushed forth to replace it with Jeff Friedl already in position. The backdrop simply changed to a projection of the elegant unclosed circle that is A Perfect Circle’s logo and the opening bass notes of “Weak and Powerless” played by Matt McJunkins began. By this point, the entire venue was on its feet like it was the last song of the night. Mer de Noms track “Orestes” followed with it’s longing, yet murderous refrain, “Gotta cut away, clear away / Snip away and sever this / Umbilical residue / That’s keeping me from killing you.” The dreamy and mounting track, “The Noose,” ended their first segment of the night, a flutter with Keenan’s strong vocals and it’s powerful finale.
The players switched out again for Puscifer, and each of the three visual displays now showed a caricature of the devil woman/Puscifer creature the band has always used in their artwork. Now joined by both Carina Round and Juliette Commagere on vocals and backing guitars/keyboards, they delved first into material from the first Puscifer album “V” is for Vagina, playing amped up versions of “Vagina Mine” and “Trekka,” the former with an escalating crescendo for the ending call, “This vagina mine one track tunnel vision down,” and the latter with its sinister outro lyric, “We’ll rest forever when we’re dead.” They then shifted to two of the band’s finest songs released only on EPs: the meditative “Polar Bear” and the cathartic “Breathe.” “Polar Bear” particularly impressed with its themes of urgency, requesting its target to not mole off into self-destruction (“Hoping to fade and disappear into the white”).
Keenan hilariously quipped, “Grampa needs a break,” signaling the night’s only intermission. While on break a long-form video of “Toma” from Conditions of My Parole played on the monitors featuring Lucha Libres practicing for a match against a female competitor. When the break was over Puscifer was up again, and this time began with the peaceful, delicate number, “Oceans.” “Monsoons” and “Horizons” slowly picked up the energy, “Horizons” with it’s unforgettable line, “Swirl and sway without me / Dust devil swept you away,” and “Monsoons” featuring Keenan and Howerdel singing together.
The drum kit returned from the back and this time it was Failure’s turn to lead. The heartbreaking “Another Space Song” focused on the theme of a lover lost forever and the song’s character ruminating on what he can see but never fully grasp (“She’ll always be what I can’t find / She’ll always be where I break down”). “Frogs” bounded with Andrews’ chugging basswork, itself an examination on the effects of hallucinogenics, while “Solaris” again blended sci-fi imagery with romantic longing (“Are you haunting me again? / Are you thawing out my head? / I want to get you out…”).
The drum kit switched and A Perfect Circle returned. Billy Howerdel and James Iha deftly plucked the guitar lines, providing just enough punch and just enough artful color on Mer de Noms tracks “The Hollow” and “Rose.” The band was joined by Puscifer’s Carina Round for their epic gut punch, “The Package.” Round soothingly sang the song’s first two verses before Keenan joined in on the song’s explosive turn growling, “Mine, mine, mine / Take / what’s / mine.” Hard to imagine anything more satisfying in rock music to see rendered to its pummeling conclusion.
The band switched out to Puscifer again, this time the group focusing on some of the band’s more upbeat numbers, “Conditions of My Parole,” “Man Overboard” and “The Undertaker.” “Conditions of My Parole” is all Keenan’s quick-paced vocal melodies undulating between hushed to sing-speak to nimble phrasing and then back again. “Man Overboard” brimmed over as a cautionary warning at turbulent storms ahead (echoing the economic meltdown of our country these last four years). Not to be outdone, “The Undertaker” went for the throat, itself the hardest song amidst Puscifer’s catalog.
For A Perfect Circle’s final time up, the band angled first for the industrial strength reworking of “Pet” directly titled “Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums.” Howerdel could be visibly seen stomping and cheering with glee along with each line. “Pet” alone is a fantastic anti-war song that is hard to imagine being improved at all, but somehow this punishing mutation did just that. “3 Libras” simmered things down for the band’s final number of the night, “By and Down.” A fitting choice given it’s the one true new song the band has released since Thirteenth Step, given almost all of eMOTIVe was cover songs.
Failure’s final portion of the evening carried on the mood, first playing the somber “Blank.” “Wet Gravity” was ferocious through the addition of Jeff Friedl on second drums accompanying Failure’s Kellii Scott. The band concluded with “Heliotropic,” an excellent choice given the song’s otherworldly elongated and exciting instrumental outro. Andrews thanked the audience before taking seat with his bandmates around the stage.
The final segment was ushered in by frequent Puscifer performer Laura Milligan performing as her hilarious Hildy character. Hildy called for Billy D. so they could celebrate his “berfday.” Sure enough, Keenan arrived in his full Billy D costume (complete with giant blonde wig and aviator sunglasses) emerging from the airstream trailer parked on stage, pretending to have just finished taking a dump. The two took center stage to perform arguably one of the very first Puscifer songs, “Cuntry Boner.” (Truthfully a song originated by Electric Sheep, but one Keenan performed in character as a part of a one-off performance called Recreational Racism back in 1999 the same night A Perfect Circle made their debut.) If you don’t laugh when you hear Billy D. sing “I fucked The Judds,” and then Hildy’s quizzical, “You fucked The Judds?” there’s just something wrong with you.
If that wasn’t enough, quietly Tool’s Danny Carey took the drum kit to play drums on that number. He stayed for every song thereafter and it just got more eye-popping and amazing from there. Without announcement, several members of Green Jelly (it’s hard to say who because most were in puppet masks save for singer Bill Manspeaker) came out and immediately launched into their massive 90’s hit “Three Little Pigs.” Keenan stood stage left and in response to Manspeaker’s howling “Little pig, little pig / let me in,” chirped out the falsetto response, “Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin.” It was a puppet orgy on par with Green Jelly’s own chaotic and incredible shows. Keenan quipped afterwards, “Best birthday ever,” raising his hands up in amazement. For those unfamiliar, both Keenan and Carey were at one point live members of Green Jelly. A man stepped forth as the puppets left and Keenan feigned confusion, “Hey who’s that?” It was none other than Justin Chancellor of Tool. He started hammering out the opening chords to Tool’s “Sober.” A roar emitted from the crowd of stupefied proportions. A keyboardist subbed in for Adam Jones on guitar, but the song filled the night air as the crowd furiously sang along. Yup, Failure, Puscifer, A Perfect Circle and 3/4 of Tool all in one night.
The final number was Puscifer’s “The Humbling River.” There are practically 20 different songs that could have filled this spot, but somehow “The Humbling River” seems the only correct choice. In it, Keenan passively coos, “Braved the forest, braved the stone / Braved the icy winds and fire / Braved and beat them on my own / Yet I’m helpless by the river / Angel, angel what have I done / I’ve faced the quakes, the wind, the fire / I’ve conquered country, crown, and throne / Why can’t I cross this river?” In it, he ponders on a life off accomplishments, triumphant in the face of all that has faced him. Yet, there are still challenges beyond the challenges. Any of us may think that being true to ourselves, being happy, being independent and being prosperous are all the battles that life may have to offer us. But it’s far from true. Life’s greatest challenges come from within us. To be able to truly transcend our own limitations. To embrace life and not be governed by fear. It is perfect to conclude such a historic event surrounded by a small army of friends and collaborators singing delicately, “It’ll take a lot more than words and guns / A whole lot more than riches and muscle / The hands of the many must join as one / And together we’ll cross the river.”
Happy Birthday Maynard.
The Nurse Who Loved Me
Dirty Blue Balloons
A Perfect Circle:
Weak and Powerless
Another Space Song
A Perfect Circle:
Conditions of My Parole
A Perfect Circle:
Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums
By and Down
New York, New York (w/ Neil Hamberger)
Cuntry Boner (w/”Hildy,” Danny Carey)
3 Little Pigs (w/Green Jelly, Danny Carey)
Sober (w/Justin Chancellor/Danny Carey)