Concert Review: Primus & The Chocolate Factory at Chicago Theatre, 4/10/15

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When Les Claypool announced that Primus was going to do a full length interpretation of the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory it didn't strike us as something completely out of character for the zany San Franciscan band of noise makers.

Maybe for bands like Metallica or Foo Fighters, but not for Primus.

The guys always wore their sense of humor on their sleeves and the whole premise of Willy Wonka is so out-there, it's hard to take the whole story seriously.

The movie itself was a product of Roald Dahl colorful imagination, a kids movie that the parents can actually be stimulated by. The storyline a direct product of the 60's hippie dream where greed would be everyone's eventual downfall.

Still not exactly a rock and roll premise... Or is it? New Years Eve 2013 found the guys debuting their full-length interpolation of Wonka to a rapturous crowd. Back with original drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander after an 18 year hiatus, a palpable chemistry between the three players was experienced.

Les Claypool, the singer and super-inventive bass player has always had a Willy Wonka/Ringleader vibe switching styles from song to song and pretty much controlling the flow of the music.

So the next logical step was to record a complete album. It would be a loving tribute to the genius of Gene Wilder.

I was originally sort of weary of going to see them live for the first time under the premise of "Primus & The Chocolate Factory." Would this be a weird left turn that left old fans cold? Would it be a complete 180 from the fun-loving trash-funk band we have all grew to love for the past two decades? Les Claypool is no idiot, he knew that to drop something like this on his fans he would also have to break out the hits.

A little sugar makes the medicine go down.

So last Friday we packed into the Chicago Theatre and without an opening act the guys graced the stage with "American Life." It is not possible to describe the bass line that opens this song. But I will try. It sounds like if you dipped an electric bass guitar in a vat of battery acid and then tried to play the funk.

This track was one of the many classic songs played from Primus' most beloved album, 1991's Sailing The Seas Of Cheese.

That album really stuck out among the legions of grunge with a fun-loving, virtuosic funk-metal vibe that still sounds fresh in 2015.

The first set was about ten songs of fan favorites like the unlikely 1993 hit "My Name Is Mud" on which Les taps his bass with a style that turns a stringed instrument into a second percussion line.

Herb Alexander's drum work is fancy without being pretentious, with a relatively small kit filled with strange cymbals and other gear.

Larry "Ler" LaLonde's guitar work isn't flashy either, he knows he is second fiddle to Claypool's bass creations, but he supports what Les is doing instead of fighting with it.

After a short intermission, the curtain went up and a fanciful stage full of mushrooms and other oddities welcomed the band back, this time with Les dressed as Willy Wonka and backed by two other musicians known as the Fungi Ensemble. Images from the original film projected behind the band in strange loops giving the whole proceedings a super-psychedelic feel.

The eery opener "Candy Man" found Les sitting down and bowing his bass creating a super hypnotic repetition that certainly was a different feel to the original soundtrack.

When the guys ripped into "Pure Imagination" it was a perfect mix of Primus' trademark sound with the original gorgeous melody originally penned by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the 1971 film. Then two gigantic Oompa Loompas appeared for the first of four appearances as a returning theme bouncing together to the beat of the music. Towards the end of the piece, the screen behind the band showed the Oompa Loompa's at several Chicago locations like riding the El train and walking around Millennium Park, showing off Primus' sense of humor once again.

Overall the Willy Wonka set was rewarding as something completely new and after another break the guys came back to rock three more Primus classics making this show a nice juxtaposition of old and new.

If you are a fan of odd Americana, the Willy Wonka movie or Primus' catalogue I would certainly recommend checking out this tour. You won't be disappointed.

For more on Primus and upcoming tour dates click here.

Photo Credit: Ryan Trembath