From Willy Wonka To Willie Watson
Each year brings new opportunities for live music. If my January is any indication, 2015 is going to be an interesting and diverse year.
In a Venn Diagram of people who saw the two acts I saw, I would likely be quite alone in the overlapping subset. Primus and bassist Les Claypool are not synonymous with public radio, and to be honest, not what I usually listen to. I am however always intrigued by Les Claypool projects. In 2001 he teamed up with Trey Anastasio (Phish) and Stewart Copeland (The Police) to form Oysterhead. He plays with jazz saxophonist Skerik and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti (RatDog, Furthur) in Les Claypool’s Frog Brigade. They released a wonderful live version of Pink Floyd’s Animals album in 2010. If going from heavy metal to jazz influenced psychedelic rock wasn’t enough, in 2012, he ventured into Americana music with Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang where he plays twangy versions of Primus tunes and a few new ones on a resonator bass with guitarist Brian Kehoe on banjo.
On January 2, Primus performed a dark, psyhedelic interpretation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Portland at the Schnitzer. It was in support of the album Primus and the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble released in 2014.
The first set was the original Primus line up playing classic Primus tunes. For the second, they were joined by The Fungi Ensemble; Mike Dillon (Critters Buggin’) on percussion, marimba and vibraphone and cellist Sam Bass (Frog Brigade), to perform the Chocolate Factory album in full. As a fan of progressive rock, it seemed like I was being treated to a throwback to early Genesis. The songs, while largely sticking to the structure of the film, included signature Primus bass lines, vocals, and their inside-out, rhythm-heavy arrangements as well as some nice jamming with Claypool and Bass trading licks on their respective instruments. The stage was decorated with candy, Claypool was dressed like Willy Wonka and on the video screen behind the stage, edited clips of the original movie starring Gene Wilder, helped to set the psychedelic scene. Did I mention the dancing Oompa Loompas? During the Oompa Loompa songs, the band was joined by creepy costumed characters dancing along with the music.
Primus and their peculiar sound is certainly an acquired taste, but that too could be said for Frank Zappa. I once tried to describe Primus by saying they sound like the opposite of music, and that’s not an insult, they are very unique.
If Primus is the opposite of music, former member of Old Crow Medicine Show and current member of the Dave Rawlings Machine, Willie Watson is the opposite of Primus. My music tastes have changed over the years, and while perennial favorites of mine like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, G Love and Special Sauce and Beck all turned out good albums in 2014, it was Willie Watson’s solo effort, Folk Singer Vol 1, that impressed me most. Watson left Old Crow Medicine Show and last year, worked, with production help from David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, to make an album of traditional folk tunes. The entire album is just Watson and his guitar or banjo and sometimes harmonica. From the first time I heard his take on “Midnight Special”, a song I’ve generally been indifferent to, I knew I wanted to dig further.
Watson played January 23 at the Rogue Theater in Grants Pass. Playing solo and acoustic and still being able to engage an audience could be a difficult task. Watson, with his slick guitar playing (you can hear the Dave Rawlings influence in many of his leads) and his high lonesome voice brought the songs from Folk Singer to life and was truly captivating. He does this by being fully committed to the twang. It is genuine, old time music and Watson delivers it with a level of authenticity hard to believe for someone who grew up in the 1990s. In his live performance on JPR’s Open Air earlier that day, he mentioned choosing songs from this genre in part because he liked the language used by the artists of that time. The line ‘...went downtown for to get a little sap’ from “Bring it With you When you Come” he says, is something no one would think to write any more. It is clear he has done his homework studying the genre. I hope to hear other artists take his lead and help to educate new generations of musicians and fans.
His show in Grants Pass was a night of soulfully delivered songs about drinking, trains, prison and work. My current favorite tune from the album, and for me the highlight of the night, was “Keep It Clean”, a song written by Charley Jordan and originally recorded in the 1930s. It’s difficult to say what this tune is really about; it’s whimsical and seems to hint at double entendre though it’s hard to put you’re finger on why. Watson plays it with tongue firmly implanted in cheek as if he gets the joke even if you don’t.
It was a good January. And by the time you read this in early March, I’ll have seen Gov’t Mule with John Scofield in Eugene; I’m looking forward to much more live music in 2015.
Dave Jackson is one of the hosts of both Open Air and the Folk Show.