Les Claypool has always understood that without a good dose of humor, instrumental virtuosity can produce music as empty as Eddie Van Halen's noggin. As leader of Primus, Claypool successfully melded his overpowering bass-guitar skills with a keenly sly wit and thrilled an unlikely demographic of air-guitar-playing frat boys and legitimate fretboard burners. "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver" and "Tommy the Cat" were cute, technically impressive '90s novelties. Yet talent and luck haven't kept Claypool's trio from descending into the kind of belligerently pyrotechnic displays that Primus is still capable of inflicting on this recent tour. After all, guitarist Larry LaLonde was a student of über-wanker Joe Satriani.
And there is a big difference between the unsubtle, faux intellectualism of Rush and the cynical genius of Frank Zappa, just two of the influences that Claypool somehow merged some 20-odd years ago. While the humor has often proved amusing (the Grammy-nominated (!) "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver" can always induce a few chuckles), the endless drug references and consistently lowbrow associations with films such as Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey has placed Primus dangerously close to a stale pop-culture reference gussied up with sheer instrumental dexterity.
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Touring in support of the new retrospective, They Can't Always Be Zingers, Claypool, LaLonde and drummer Tim Alexander have decided to embrace the inevitable, labeling this outing "The Beat a Dead Horse Tour." Always deflating criticism with a self-effacing glee, Primus actually deflects denigration by embracing it, playing along with both their fans and their detractors. Despite the fact that they basically created their own niche, Primus has, in fact, become yet another cash cow on the fall concert circuit, an excuse to milk the converted of a few bucks better spent on their impending retirement. The "use by" date on this convoluted trivia has passed long ago.