By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
A sold-out and animated crowd renewed Les Claypool’s faith Monday night at Harrah’s Voodoo Lounge.
“I’ve never played a casino before,” Claypool confessed to the crowd toward the end of his set. “I was thinking ‘What’s next, is Claypool going to be playing Branson?’”
Judging from their response, most of the crowd would have been more than happy to travel the three hours to see the bass-playing legend. Claypool’s done quite well following his eclectic muse for the past 20 years, and it saw him through this betting-hall debut.
For a shade over two hours Claypool led his quartet – drummer Paulo Baldi, Skerik on saxophone and sometime Malachy Papers collaborator Mike Dillon on percussion – through a bizarre but upbeat mélange of prog funk free jazz.
That looks like a head-scratcher on paper, but it works surprisingly well in concert. Each player has a well-defined role and knows how to walk the line between the experimental and excruciating. The result may not be for the uninitiated, but it is more accessible than imagined.
The quartet hit their stride with the third song, “David Makalaster.” The band stretched the song to nearly 10 minutes, with each instrument adding new textures and layers.
In a way, this was the template of the night. Claypool would narrate a couple verses of a song and then the group would explore every nook and cranny of what it had to offer. While this is the province of many a jam band – and no doubt there were many jam fans present – Claypool has enough variance in his catalog that the songs never felt the same.
The credit for this goes to the drummers. Their propulsive interplay kept the group moving forward and made the explorations hypnotic, not repetitive. The light-speed synergy between the two percussionists, who were briefly joined by a third, unnamed guest, created the illusion of an invading drum corp. Drum solos are usually the time for a beer or bathroom run, but when Claypool ceded the stage to the percussion, it drew the biggest cheers of the night.
Claypool keep the songbook focused on his most recent efforts with the Frog Brigade and his 2006 solo album, “Of Whales and Woe.” Set closer “D’s Diner” flirted with hip-hop, and Claypool returned for an unaccompanied stroll through Primus’ “American Life.” When the full band returned for a Black Sabbath cover Claypool bypassed “N.I.B.,” which Primus covered several years ago, in favor of “Electric Funeral.”
Claypool has made a career of blending the disparate. He’s wise and faithful enough to know better than to pander to new fans, but he does know how to make the existing ones very happy. Even if it means playing a casino.