"No, we won't be playing any of that...Satanic music..." Les Claypool smirks, his fingers briefly belting out the trademark riff from the Primus classic "Jerry Was a Race Car Driver". For a moment, the audience shifts, and a few random hoots are heard. But as the musical virtuoso readjusts his custom instrument and leaps into the next freeform number, most in the crowd don't seem to care. They are there to witness the man who made bass beautiful, who took the typical rhythm stick and turned it into a work of sonic art. For the last two decades, this 44 year old musical maverick has redefined the conventional wisdom on the four string sound bar, either as the guiding force of the aforementioned power trio, or in various solo or side project incarnations. Out on his own through most of 2006 in support of Of Whales and Woe, his latest collection of quirks with backup band Fancy, he remains firmly ensconced in his desire to find new aural directions. Through a deal with a small group of passionate Pool pals, Les had these concerts filmed, and via this freelance footage, and the soundboard mixes from his amazing shows, has complied a marvelous memento of his live appearances. Entitled Les Claypool - Fancy, this no frills document of the man and his muse is simply amazing.
Subtitled "A Fan's Perspective" (and more or less looking like it), Les Claypool - Fancy consists of 15 live cuts culled from his Summer 2006 tour and features his latest band of merry misfits - an idiosyncratic bunch including Gabby La La on sitar, ukulele and Theremin, Paulo Baldi on drums, the madman of the woodwinds Skerik, and the equally insane Mike Dillon on vibraphone, marimba and various percussive instruments. The music here is as odd as anything the Primus pioneer has ever attempted before. Ephemeral, eerie and always eccentric, the unusual fusion of prog and polka, jazz and joking self-indulgence is like listening to androids interpreting early Utopia's take on Parliament's cover version of Tales from Topographic Oceans. Toss in a slight Middle Eastern influence, some wild ass sax wonks, numerous nods to George Clinton fun, and a healthy dose of Claypool's trademark serial killer singing style, and you've got either the most hubris filled horror show ever committed to melody, or a wholly unique approach to combining art with audio.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, and comprised of some of the best, most bad ass playing Claypool has ever committed to tape, Fancy far outranks most other famous musician side projects. In comparison to something like Andrew Partridge's (XTC) recent foray into improvised jamming (the mediocre Monstrance), this is expertly organized chaos, cacophony controlled by a unique desire to explode, not implode, the dynamics of sound. Some will argue that everything sounds the same here, that Claypool simply colors his complicated bass ballistics with the help of a lot of non-standard, non-rock instrumentation, and if that's all you get from this demanding DVD, then you're missing the point. Claypool doesn't want to drive you away. He hopes you will use your previous passion for his music and join him on a journey exploring the oddest of aural couplings. Marimba and vibraphone may not seem like instant rock and roll backup, but Mike Dillon's demanding work with the mallets is mesmerizing. He can drive a tune directly into dementia with this playing. Though the mix more or less buries her sitar in the background, Gabby La La is equally effective at shading Claypool's compositions. During her occasional Theremin solos, her contribution is potent, powerful and really shines. She takes the standard sci-fi soundtrack item and turns it into a wicked thing of brittle beauty.
Skerik, whose stage name sounds like the noise his monstrous saxophones make, loves to play the indirect jester during the jams, his oversized horns blasting out farts of fascinating counterpoint to the relatively smooth surfaces of the sound. On occasion, he recalls the initial phases of new wave, when bands like the Psychedelic Furs and Romeo Void used woodwinds to accent their jangled, nervous psychedelia. Add Cake drummer Paolo Baldi's expert timing and tempo and you've got the makings of a mighty act. But Claypool remains the entity that really sells it all. From his wide-open range of influences (this is a man who sound checks Peter Gabriel, Rush and the Residents with relative ease) to his novel interpretation of the bass (part melodic, part manic) he turns each tune into an exercise in experimental evisceration. When you see a title like "The Big Eyeball in the Sky" or "Long in the Tooth", you don't anticipate your typical 'June/moon/spoon' conceits. But with his biting wit, plainspoken presentation, and love of things mysterious and menacing, Claypool can turn a verse about a straight laced company man into a precursor to the Apocalypse. His bass does hold down each song, his complicated and interlocking lines providing the foundation for the rest to build on. And like the best kind of jam banding, when Fancy cooks (which is quite often), they threaten to overheat and burn the venue down.
Some may be concerned with the notion that this is a fan shot and fan supported video. In many cases, that idea has garnered what can best be described as homemade movie hackwork. But here, Claypool's version works magically. The footage chosen seems to support both a professional protocol as well as a 'you are there' ideal. It represents the best and most intimate of concert film motifs. This is especially true in the numerous close-ups and solo spots. Again, Gabby's Theremin playing is amazing, and the look of concentration on her face bares out her intensity and focus. Similarly, Skerik's overinflated cheeks remind one of other famous sax men, and the diabolic appearance of his piercing eyes is enough to set your skin on edge. These moments also allow us to appreciate things the music itself cannot express. Gabby's sitar playing is precise and somewhat delicate, but when placed in contrast to Dillon's sledgehammer vibes work, you understand the grander group component at play. Always one to support disguises, Claypool dons the familiar "Mr. Krinkle" pig head, and gets his bandmates to follow suit with various, wigs/hats/demon facades. But this is not a flashy or brashy spectacle. Instead, it's the work of a very dedicated group of musicians who know that fans are there for vibe as much as variety. Fancy fulfills the needs of anyone looking for smart, vibrant instrumentation. It perfectly illustrates why Les Claypool remains a bass guitar god.
Offered in a weird optical configuration that shifts between non-anamorphic letterboxing and standard full screen imagery, the overall transfer of Fancy is terrific. Of course, there will be those who instantly squawk about the lack of a legitimate 16x9 presentation, and others will wonder why the visuals have to vary between 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 at all. This is probably the result of the technology available to the "crew". In addition, there are some minor flaws to be found here. There is an ever so slight 'rippling' in the image, especially during the many darker moments. If you look carefully, you can just see the slightest optical undulation running across the frame. Also, there are times when the colors come across as 'too hot', or almost solarized in appearance. Again, this could just be an issue of available camcorder material.
The next big bone of contention amongst purists will be the lack of a Dolby Digital 5.1 Mega Massive Surround Sound Epic Environmentally Submersive mix. The standard Stereo 2.0 will have to suffice, and one must admit, it does sound pretty sweet. Sure, the lack of a legitimate multichannel experience might lessen the live appeal of the product, but if all you really care about is the accurate recreation of Claypool's concert sonics, this DVD definitely delivers. Besides, this is a sort-of souvenir, a fan-helmed collaboration, and not an attempt to transcend the rock show genre by delivering some post-Stop Making Sense masterwork.
The only bit of added content here is something called "Fancy Banter" and it consists of 22 minutes of Claypool talking to the crowd. He's a very deadpan guy, and his comments sometimes sound silly, sour, and depressed. But he's also very acerbic and satiric, so you get the best of both psychological worlds. Aside from some clever animated menus, that's it.
Clearly aimed at those already members of the considered Claypool clan, Fancy may not fly far beyond the fearless and the fanbase. But for those more adventurous members of the post-modern musical youth, this is an excellent sampler of a stellar musical chameleon. Easily earning a rating of Highly Recommended, devotees to the man's Primus past may squirm at the lack of alt-rock routine. But Les Claypool - Fancy definitely fulfills the wishes of any aficionado of unusual aural acrobatics. If you want power pop, or standard lyric/bridge/chorus compositions, choose another acoustic street to wander down. This is Claypool's cul-de-sac, and it's a dreamlike domain of dissonance and the disturbing. You can enter at your own risk, but don't be put off by the obvious oddness. The party's just starting, and it's one helluva crazy carnival.
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