The performance highlighted the connections between the trios, who toured together in 1991. Both have quirky, bass-playing frontmen, of course, with Primus’s Les Claypool being the more idiosyncratic. Both also have complex, technical drummers as well as guitar players who are forced to play outside the box to get noticed over the thunder of their bandmates.
The evening’s centerpiece was the Rush tribute, which comprised the second set. Primus performed the Canadian trio's 1977 album A Farewell To Kings in its entirety, which proved to be a good choice since the LP sits squarely in Rush’s most progressive era, balancing tricky playing with forays into the more accessible songwriting that began to show its face around that time.
Primus killed the monsters: “A Farewell To Kings,” “Xanadu” and “Cygnus X-1.” The band clearly knew the material cold and were simultaneously able to be faithful to the challenging source material and let it breathe. Rush is known for dense arrangements, and the temptation might be to perform the music more aggressively to energize the room. But Primus leaned back on the throttle, providing their own subtle spin without actually changing or reinterpreting the material. Indeed, save the lead on “Cinderella Man,” the performance was remarkably faithful.
Unfortunately, sound problems marred the performance of the title track, which led off the set. The band soldiered on through what sounded like a blown car speaker amplified to the size of the Majestic. The problem only went on for a couple of minutes, but you could feel the audience collectively cringing until its resolution.
Primus' secret weapon for this set turned out to be drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander. His performance felt especially muscular, likely a nod to Rush drummer Neil Peart, the man who held the crown as rock's hardest hitter after the untimely deaths of The Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
Guitarist Larry “Ler” LaLonde got a chance to shine in a more overt way than he usually does with Primus. After all, '70s-era Rush is more riff-oriented than Primus ever gets. And it was hard to top the visual of LaLonde and Claypool both on double-necks for a powerful “Xanadu.”
If there was a place Primus struggled with the Rush material, it was in the vocal department. When the tour was announced just before the pandemic began, grumbling arose from the peanut gallery that Claypool would struggle with the vocals. And while he handled it like a champ, going for the gusto at times and dropping an octave at others, this was always going to be the most difficult part of making the tribute work.
To be fair to Claypool, who's 30-plus years into his run with Primus, Rush's Geddy Lee couldn't pull off those same vocal lines at the same point in his own career. They are, well ... Too. Damn. High. But while Lee found a way to make the melodic “Closer To The Heart” work, that particular style simply isn't an option for Claypool, whose voice is thinner and more nasal.
Claypool’s bass playing was a sight to behold on covers and originals, however. Watching him kill Lee's lines served to highlight the contrast in his own peculiar style, which is more minimal than might be apparent to casual listeners. Whereas Lee is busy and plays a lot of notes, Claypool focuses on the groove and nails it down. The technique he uses is masterful, but when you get down to it, he’s not necessarily playing a lot of individual notes or fast runs.
The evening wasn’t all Rush, though. Primus wowed the faithful — clearly hanging on every note — with an hour-long set of original material and a post-Rush encore that featured two classics.
Primus plays a different setlist nightly, and for the Majestic, they decided to slice up a chunk of their breakthrough album, 1991’s Sailing the Seas of Cheese. The band hit “American Life” early on in the first set and — in a highlight — folded a healthy serving of “Jerry Was A Race Car Driver” into the middle of Pork Soda’s “My Name Is Mud” for a jamband-style “sandwich.”
The encore was “Here Come The Bastards” from Cheese, accompanied by a rapturously received “Tommy The Cat,” which Claypool said a fan had told him is never played when Primus hits SA. Course correction!
Another highlight was the brand new, 11-minute tune “Conspiranoia,” performed live for only the second time. The song's sinister ooze worked better live than it does in-studio, and the visuals were particularly appropriate.
The trio took a pause during the opening “To Defy the Laws of Tradition,” for Claypool to apologize for being “tardy,” which he joked was due to a problem with the gas line on his tour bus. Indeed, opening act Battles had been offstage for 45 minutes before Primus hit.
With regard to Battles, the NYC avant garde-math rock duo dropped a surprisingly well-received set that veered from more abstract noise into angular grooves by the time it finished. Though an instrumental outfit, Battles peppered the set with vocal samples, including one that sounded like Yes’s Jon Anderson spliced and run backwards. It’s hard to open for a beloved cult act, and Battles did an admirable job.
But, ultimately, the crowd was there for Primus. And San Antonio also is a Rush town, adding to the night's energy. The palpable buzz among attendees flooding onto Houston Street as the hour pushed midnight suggested they all got their money’s worth.