The first instrument I ever bought with my own money was an electric bass guitar. I reasoned that since the bass only has four spaced out strings that it would be a lot easier to learn than guitar. I was right. Before long I was banging out grunge hits like it was old hat. The thing about bass, though, is while learning how to play it is easy, mastering the bass is a lot more difficult. It’s made even more difficult when you hear Les Claypool play, who makes even the best players perk up and pay attention.
You’ve probably heard of Primus, the band Claypool is most known for. In the 90s and early 2000s, the trio made some of the weirdest alt-rock in the land, fusing funk and classic rock elements with an almost jazz fusion sensibility. Add to that Claypool’s distinct vocal twang, which skewed toward narrative rants and often cartoonish stories, and you have a picture of his career making music much larger than life. Whether singing about psychotic rednecks (“My Name is Mud”), an average racecar driver (“Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”), or the owner of an anthropomorphic beaver, Claypool always has a knack for rendering the everyday world as more than a little colorful. That he at times put in enough sexually suggestive lyrics to make ZZ Top blush certainly lends him a sort of southern charm that, at least in my household, never fell on deaf ears.
Be it as a member of Primus, the jazz funk trio Oysterhead, which featured Phish’s Trey Anastasio and Stuart Copeland of the Police, or Sausage, the reunion of the original lineup of Primus, Claypool has always veered toward a stripped down, relatively simplistic arrangement. Or at least in terms of the constitution of his projects, which seem to revolve around a “less is more” approach that privileges tight musicianship first, and pop craftsmanship second. Claypool finds the internal clock to each song, locks on, and somehow manages to build the groove, while also serving as the lead instrument. The difficulty is in putting into words just how talented Claypool is, given the nature of his virtuosity, which is to be heard to be believed.
You’re in luck though. Performing at The Mercury Ballroom, Claypool brings his most recent venture, Duo De Twang to Louisville for an evening that promises that same kind of sideshow fun that he’s known for. Duo De Twang expand on that same economy of sound that Claypool has fashioned for himself over the year by paring down even further to two-piece: Claypool on his dobro bass, and Bryan Kehoe on guitar. Performing as a duo takes a lot of work to fill up the space, assuming that is even the end result, but Claypool and Kehoe certainly make a sweet noise together, one full with inflection. The two pair nicely, playing off each other’s kinetic styles for polyrhythmic, vocally-driven jams that come off as playful and easy.
A lot of reviewers and critics would have you know that Duo De Twang is as deconstructed as possible, a spare collaboration that makes quaint what Primus or Sausage writ large. “Americana” is the genre where Duo de Twang will be defined, a label accurate if only by degrees. Duo’s implied simplicity is an aesthetic decision, one made to appeal to that particularly southern and especially country attitude, that kind of folksy, sitting-on-the-porch-drinking-tea kind of thing, wherein life is like an episode of Happy Days, and we’re all just pounding the jukebox to play that song for our special someone.
Whatever Duo De Twang is, it is not that. Duo live up to their name, playing heavily with trebly tones that certainly strike a certain chord, perhaps reminiscent of the best bluegrass or basement blues, but definitely not to be confused with most country or western tropes, music most often identified with Americana. What we get though is an Americana that reflects the times. Claypool’s music is an evolution and merging of a multitude of sounds, a melting pot if you will of American musical culture, aggregated or not.
Claypool has a PT Barnum-like flare for the dramatic, which should tell you that he wants to put on a good show. Listening to him, you hear a man on fire, but watching him, he makes it look so damned easy, you’ll think you could pull it off yourself. That’s what you’re in for tonight: a showcase of everything weird, eclectic, and probably right down your street. On the surface, Claypool’s Americana may seem to be something very different from what you’ve come to know, but he represents the best of us. Whether he’s playing covers of old Primus songs (he does), covers of Charlie Daniel’s Band songs (he has), or playing his own new tunes, you can expect something worth your time this Wednesday night.
Opening tonight are NYC musical comedy duo Reformed Whores. You can get tickets at the door at The Mercury Ballroom, or through their website. Doors are at 8, so don’t be late.