Primus frontman Les Claypool isn’t the type of guy who caters to his fans. He does whatever the hell he wants, and his core cult of diehards doggedly follows, because he is probably the greatest living bass guitar player in the realm of what can loosely be considered rock and roll. Despite having released only one full album of new material (2011’s Green Naugahyde) since 1999’s shark-jump Antipop, the Primus brand has never lain dormant for long. Rather than pepper his setlists with deep cuts for the fans, though, Claypool is content to keep playing the same old songs night after night with whichever of the three Primus drummers happens to be free and/or broke at the time (currently, Tim “Herb” Alexander, cementing the trio’s classic lineup).

This jaunt with Dinosaur Jr. (because hey, remember the ’90s?) separates two legs of the Primus & The Chocolate Factory Tour, which boasts one entire set of Willy Wonka songs. Thursday night’s performance in The Rave’s Eagles Ballroom featured none of this material. The set drew from the ’90s catalog with the exception of three songs, which evidently suited the near-capacity crowd just fine.

It was interesting how the Naugahyde tracks, especially “Last Salmon Man” and “Jilly’s On Smack,” have grown to sound more like Primus after a few years on the road, whereas the album sounds essentially like a Claypool solo work. Claypool may be the undisputed leader of the band, but Primus’ best nights amount to an onstage power struggle between Les and guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde. Thursday’s setlist held absolutely no surprises, but nearly every song led to feats of improvisation far beyond what the Primus of old ever attempted.

To be clear, most Primus jams are very structured, working towards a predetermined endpoint with similar motifs being repeated night after night. There’s not much incentive to follow the band across the country, and there’s also little danger of endless, mindless meandering. But aside from the painfully scripted rock bombast of “Southbound Pachyderm,” a song which was once far less restrictive, the music came off as spontaneous and inspired.

“Hello, Minneapolis!” Claypool joked in the middle of “Over The Falls.” He then recalled having played the room many times over the years, remarking, “It’s about time to change the name of this place to the Eagles Sweaty Ballroom.” He had a point: It wasn’t even a hot night, but the ballroom was a sauna. LaLonde then brought out the “shark guitar,” which is exactly what you’re picturing, and played the wonkiest of his many solos of the night. At times he evoked the classically tinged melodic power of Randy Rhoads, and at times the caustic, jazzy experimentation of Frank Zappa. Whereas most improv-based guitarists of his generation have lost a few steps by now, Ler seems to gain strength with each passing tour.

Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have changed one bit since the ’90s, at least in musical terms. For the opening set, he shredded his way through an hour’s worth of Dinosaur Jr. classics and a couple new tunes, which are virtually indistinguishable from the old. Bassist Lou Barlow doesn’t get enough credit, though—nobody puts more heart and soul into a sideman role as him. His maniacal yelp that abruptly ended the band’s cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” was a high point of the night.

About The Author

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Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.