Les Claypool is truly a singular artist. He’s transcended his various projects over the decades to become a sound, a style, a genre, all his own. When Primus was signed to a major label in the early ‘90s, getting radio play across America and making it to the ears of provincial teenagers everywhere, his slapping bass became the heartbeat of a movement—an irregular, irreverent, completely twisted testament to an instrument’s capabilities and a statement of nonconformity.
Now that Primus is back together and he’s put the Frog Brigade aside, Claypool has apparently found the creative space and time to pursue something different—twang. Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang performed at last fall’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, and at the time I assumed it was a special one-off set for the event. But he recently took the project on the road for a small series of shows, most recently of which was last night at Terrapin Crossroads, Phil Lesh’s newish venue in San Rafael.
Sitting before a crowd of under 400 people, remarking several times how strange it felt to be performing from a chair, Claypool and his long-bearded collaborator, guitar player MIRV Haggard, played a full two-hour set of what I’ll call stripped-down country-western funk. I’m cringing at that term, but that’s how I’d describe it. With Claypool’s fingers flying, tapping and slapping the shit out of his bass, summoning a set that ranged from relatively innocuous to all-out explosive, the show unwound in a manner befitting the intimate storyteller setting. He regaled us with background into some of the songs, most of them reimagined Primus and Frog Brigade tracks, and gave us insight into certain cover selections—which included Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses”, a Ventures track called “Pipeline”, Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans”, and “A Bridge Came Tumbling Down”, a tribute to Stompin’ Tom Connors, the Canadian folk hero who just died two few weeks ago.
Despite the camaraderie that grew out of a sing-along to a rousing rendition of “Booneville Stomp” (made sweeter by the few in the audience who actually hailed from nearby Boonville), the crowd, about half of them underage and wasted (like, can’t-stand-up-tripping-on-bad-acid-wasted) was all chatter through much of his show. When Claypool asked everyone to quiet down, threatening a “Bob Weir” on us (a nod to Weir storming off stage last week in Marin after his own audience wouldn’t shut up), no one did so, but Claypool didn’t seem offended and was hopefully more attuned to the fans in the room who were besides themselves seeing him this up-close and personal. I staked out the front row early and enjoyed most of the set from a mere few feet away, unable to take my eyes off his crazy flying fingers and telling myself that this would no doubt turn out to be one of my favorite shows of the year.
The Duo was joined by two other artists, a mandolin player who performed on a handful of songs and served to tease out the bucolic country in their sound (so easily overshadowed by all that visceral bass), and a super tall lanky dude playing a super tall lanky long-neck banjo, both of whom set in on the last song of the encore, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues.”
Who knows how long Claypool will keep this project together and if it will go anywhere. Since most of what they played was already in his catalog, it’s unclear to me if they will write new music for the Duo De Twang or what. There is better twangy music out there, much brighter and tighter and more cohesive. But like anything Claypool does, he’s not doing it in strict emulation of or allegiance to anything that came before. Western twang is generally steeped in tradition, sepia-tinted and dusty from a hard-knocks way of living. That Claypool can take that dusty nostalgia and serve it up instead with his own brand of weird vitality, speaks, yet again, to his intensely singular work as an artist. Three decades into his music career and he’s as interesting as ever.