Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine
July 12, 2010
@Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
Better than: Scratching "Lateralus" lyrics into your binder during a high school math class
"How many of you are under 21?" Tool singer Maynard James Keenan asked an adoring public at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium last night. A steady flight of hands from the black-clad audience went vertical in response. "You people were sperm before this song was written," Keenan spat, in a rare, between-song comment. And then the band lashed into a skull-numbing take on "Intolerance," the opening track from its first, frighteningly brutal full-length record, Undertow.
"Frighteningly brutal" could describe much of last night's Tool show, but this band never goes for bonehead thunk alone. In a selection of songs spanning its now two-decade career -- precisely played and presented with maximum theatrics -- Tool not only made a convincing case for heavy music in general, but for itself as one of the most innovative, creative and intelligent outfits still getting sweaty seas of young men to bang their heads and raise Dio's devil horns high in the air. Tool mediated its heaviness with airy interludes, ambient noise, and virtuosic precision. If the band in any way compromised its visually arresting, nuclear-strength vision of how its music should be presented, it did not show.The visual aspects of last night's show could fill an entire review on their own. Giant screens were everywhere: one each under Danny Carey's drum platform and Keenan's elevated singing outpost, one along the entire backside of the stage, two more elevated on both sides of the stage, and two more floating above the middle of the stage, both of which moved around throughout the set. They showed a blend of disturbing imagery from the band's notoriously creepy videos (ghost-colored half-humans performing surgery on one another; human-like embryos shuddering in pools of primordial soup) and a futuristic spray of abstract color patterns inspired by the band's album art. The screen shows -- and their beat-synched laser accompaniments -- almost eclipsed the presence of the four band members themselves. Almost. Through most of the set, Keenan appeared as a demonic, wriggling silhouette against a huge screen. Even from his singing platform, which was back by Danny Carey's drum kit, Keenan's wild black mohawk, sunglasses, and absurd fake mustache looked very, very weird. The singer swayed slowly and menacingly at some points, redoubling the impression of him as some devil-at-the-helm -- especially when he sang through his police-issue megaphone. Guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor hung their long locks down over their strings, the sole humans at the front of the stage. Carey, Tool's almost too-skilled drummer, sat immersed in a labyrinth of percussion, screens, rack equipment, and even a gong, his giant arms shooting out of a yellow L.A. Lakers jersey. Tool fans are rabid -- especially about seeing the band live -- and it's not hard to see why. This band did more with four people last night than a lot of bands two with twice that. The heavy moments (you know, the parts everyone goes to a Tool show for) had the same all-consuming thud and barb they do on Tool's recordings. When the huge parts hit, those in the auditorium's sweaty pit writhed, shuddered, shouted, puffed harder on their joints, flashed devil horns, headbanged, and generally seemed to lose all grasp on the outside world. (It was hard to remember that there was an outside world when it was all over.) "Stinkfist" threw the giant room into a fit when its first titantic chord hit. The band drew out the middle section of "Lateralus" during the encore -- they tinkered last night with song tempos in several places -- but when the climax came, the sea of black t-shirts threw fists in the air and shouted every declaratory word. "We'll ride the spiral to the end/ We may just go where no one's been," Keenan shouted, at a moment when it seemed like nothing -- not an 8.0 earthquake, not a nuclear bomb -- could have been heavier than Tool. Not that it was all big-boned chording. Tool likes to be as drawn-out and as complex as possible with its music -- testing fans' patience in the service of proper anticipation, I guess -- and it didn't pass up any chance to get intricate last night. Time signatures switched constantly; silence appeared unexpectedly; riffs evolved subtly into other riffs; climaxes arrived and dissipated like clouds. This is all part of what makes Tool fans swoon. With so much processed sound swirling throughout the room, the resulting noise made it hard to follow a few songs. But the band compensated for that by playing many of their best-known numbers. For the encore, Keenan ditched his bodysuit and mohawk for a T-shirt and cowboy hat -- I guess showing off his Arizona vintner look. But he was no less menacing in the buff cowboy outfit. Especially not for the last song of the night -- the heavy, but also wordy "Aenima" -- which pretty much everyone shouted along to. This is where Keenan both invites the apocalypse and dismisses Hollywood. "Fuck these dysfunctional, insecure actresses," Keenan emphasized, and the black-clad males in the audience relished shouting along as the heaviness reached another high point. So what if they were spem when Undertow was written? As last night's wide-ranging crowd proved, the might of Tool is all-consuming regardless of age. Critic's Notebook
Personal bias: I actually did scrape Tool lyrics into my binder one year in high school.
Random detail: It was hard to tell from the silhouette, but Keenan seemed to be guzzling wine at the mike last night. I wonder if it was his own brand.