It’s difficult to fathom an enjoyable concert derived solely from the recorded works of Puscifer. Whether or not you’re a fan of Maynard James Keenan’s voice and/or lyrics, Puscifer albums have trended more and more bland since the project’s promising 2007 debut, “V” Is For Vagina. The de facto solo project is the scourge of Tool fans, who’ve been waiting 10 years in vain for a new album. Who could blame Keenan for his reluctance to commit to the band that spawned nu-metal, though? His embrace of a watered-down, glossy variation of the same style with Puscifer may be ironic, or it may be all Keenan knows how to do. “Don’t just call me pessimist / Try and read between the lines,” he famously sang in Tool’s “Ænema.” Judging by Friday’s performance at the Riverside Theater, Puscifer is Keenan’s reaction to the fact that Tool fans weren’t able to grasp his subtext.
Puscifer’s ostensible opening act was Luchafer, which turned out to be a comedic but also acrobatically impressive wrestling performance that got the folks in the crowd—many of whom wore their own lucha masks—enthused from the get-go. Following the high-flying finale, the stage went dark, but there was no significant break before the Puscifer show began; the wrestlers remained onstage for the entire show, with a couple of breaks between “acts” for more shenanigans in the ring. Lighting was minimal, especially during the wrestling portions of the show, and looking out over the crowd, it felt surreal not seeing a sea of cell phones, as almost everyone in attendance adhered to the strict no-phone policy in place at the artists’ request.
The show began with a sardonic anthropology/biology lecture from Keenan, dripping with his unique brand of sarcastic misanthropy. Once the music began in earnest with “Simultaneous” (from last year’s Money $hot album), it became apparent that Puscifer’s songs had gotten significantly heavier in the live setting, perhaps owing to the aggressive bass playing of newcomer Paul Barker (ex-Ministry), turning pop-industrial tunes into something a little closer to actual industrial. Keenan, in his own black lucha mask with his mohawk popping out the top, shared vocal duties with Carina Round, who’s been increasingly integral to Puscifer’s creative process since 2009. Keenan’s other regular collaborator, Mat Mitchell, rounded out the core band on guitar, with Jeff Friedl from A Perfect Circle on drums and Mahsa Zargaran on keyboards. The two singers spent a good portion of the show in the wrestling ring, singing into large, circular mics and occasionally dancing, while the wrestlers took to the stage, sometimes serving to hype up the crowd. As many visual distractions as there were, when the band was playing, the music was the focus.
Given the preponderance of crude jokes, machismo, and camp-misogyny evident in Puscifer’s recorded output (and even the lucha libre interludes), it’s tempting to consider the whole endeavor as some sort of desensitization-as-activism experiment, but the frivolous attitude Keenan has always espoused towards the project in interviews (from Wikipedia: “simply a playground for the various voices in my head, […] a space with no clear or discernible goals…”) suggests that either he gives little thought to Puscifer’s overall impact, or it’s a very long con. Obsessive fans have countless theories about the hidden agenda of Tool; even taking into account the theatrical elements of Puscifer, it’s easier to take the project’s message at face value.
Keenan has never been shy about proselytizing, and his lyrics for the newer songs in particular are pretty blunt, tackling environmental issues most fervently (“The Grand Canyon,” “Money Shot,” “Man Overboard”). With the nation more mired than ever in ideological polarization, it was impossible to ignore broad political overtones in the performance, right down to the virtually interchangeable red-versus-blue wrestlers who commiserate and laugh together when the drinks are served. The song “The Life Of Brian (Apparently You Haven’t Seen)” is overtly about religious fanaticism, but it could just as easily apply to political extremism. The song came off as a plea to consider other positions besides one’s own, but despite its accusatory tone, the overall effect was uplifting.
The theme of unity came up multiple times, perhaps most obviously in the encore of “The Humbling River”: “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.” Whether you buy into Keenan’s worldview or not, he does seem to be at least attempting to use his influence to open people’s minds and incite them to positive change. The show was equally as inspiring as it was entertaining.