Show Review: Puscifer with Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival at The Fox Oakland, 11/5/2009

by Jonathan Pirro on November 6, 2009

Puscifer

Hey! Wait! That title looks awfully familiar. You mean to tell me that those troublemakers in Puscifer, the art/music/performance collective spearheaded by Maynard James Keenan of Tool/A Perfect Circle, were allowed into the Fox Theater for yet another night of mayhem, debauchery and… Wait, what’s that? Country music? No, Puscifer doesn’t play country music, they play industrial-experimental-electronic… What do you mean, the stage is built like the front of a Wild West house, complete with porch armchairs and old-style pop filter microphones?

Yes, Puscifer was back. Yes, they brought Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival back with them. But, no, it was not like the first night — as evidenced by the aforementioned set design, Puscifer had come back to play some old-fashioned country westerns. Well, old-fashioned is actually an incorrect term — after all, these were their own songs, although there’s probably some desolate corner of the world where these bastardized country ballads could be considered old-fashioned westerns.

The opening performance of Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival was very similar to that of their first night, except without Brother Ed ranting at the incoming patrons before the show; in fact, the band seemed to get rudely tossed onstage with their own equipment, with Brother Ed bitching constantly through his megaphone during the entire setup. Their set was, as far as I could see, very much the same as the set of the previous night, albeit with a slightly more energetic Brother Ant, who bounced off Ed’s drumkit throughout the set in between his frenzied licks. The crowd responded positively, as before, and the Wild West backdrop behind the band seemed to accentuate their onstage energy as they rocketed through the performance. Upon finishing, they departed as the loud, echoing strains of “Hallelujah” blasted over the PA system. The time had come for Puscifer to make their reappearance.

If the stage decor wasn’t hint enough, the arrival of the band, in old-fashioned suits — not to mention Keenan himself, wearing an over-the-top blonde Elvis-like wig — would have served well enough as the audience’s clue that this show was going to be drastically different from last night. This realization was cemented in place when the band burst into a country-western, psuedo-rockabilly version of “Vagina Mine”, which was quickly followed by a just-as-unrecognizable version of “Dozo”. From the look and sound of things, Puscifer had done a complete 180, morphing from sleek, nightclub-styled industrial outfit to over-the-top-tacky, sarcasm-dripping country rock band.

More old-western versions of the band’s catalog followed, as well as a cover of the Circle Jerks’ “World Up My Ass” (from the mockumentary clips shown between every few songs, Keenan, bearing the identity of “Bobby”, was trying to “bring the punk rock” to his Southern style of living). Nine songs in came the piece that the audience had been expecting, but also anticipating, for most of the night: “Cuntry Boner”, a crude parody of a country jam that had first seen its form in a grainy video clip that made its rounds across the Internet several years back. Keenan and (soon after) the rest of the band departed as the song drew to a close, the stage lights dimming as the massive screen above the stage kicked back to life to reveal the end of Bobby’s story over the course of several long minutes. In the darkness, stagehands scrambled to set up the screens that the band had used the night before for most of their performance; it was not long after that the band, back in their elitist garb of the night before, returned to the stage.

It was only after the mockumentary had ended, and Keenan had returned onstage in his impeccable suit and tie, that a collective sigh of relief washed through the crowd. (Personally, I thought the country covers were rather ingenious, especially with how much of the original songs were maintained and how distinctively Keenan’s voice still permeated through his drawling, overembellished Southern accent.) Rather than going into the second half of their set with a tremendous bang, the band’s music slowly crept into being via the dark, haunting notes of touring bassist Matt McJunkins, building itself into a majestic and unsettlingly epic performance of “Momma Sed”. The roars of approval following the song did well to spur the band onwards into their set, which had returned back into the violent, gleaming industrial form it had taken the night before.

While most of the rest of the set was comprised of the band’s new tracks — “Polar Bear”, “Potions”, and closer “The Humbling River”, the highlight of the second set came in the form of a positively vicious performance of “The Undertaker”. While the song has existed in numerous shapes, forms and remixes, none is as pummeling as the version found on the band’s debut album, V Is For Vagina. The version performed tonight was essentially that, with the exception of Keenan’s vocals, which took on a snarling, guttural quality as they gnashed their way around the lyrics, which were segmented and randomized, except for the choruses. The coup de grace was the end of the bridge, at which point Keenan gripped his monitor screen and bellowed out a screaming, raging “I TOLD YOU SO!”, the lyrics taking on an almost inhuman quality as they echoed around the walls of the theater like evil spirits desperately trying to escape from a cloister. When he finally fell back from the screen, the earsplitting noise of the crowd was one of ecstasy as the waves of Keenan’s roars continued to settle within the walls of the theater.

I believe that in order to fully appreciate the scope of Keenan’s vision for a Puscifer performance, one would have needed to attend both nights of the performance. In my case, it allowed me to see all the possible avenues that the songs could be taken in, from the hackneyed western covers to the almost surreal, remix-like performances that were drawn out, amped up with electronics, or otherwise enhanced in ways not yet seen. The performance of “The Undertaker” from tonight’s show was my personal highlight of the two performances; Puscifer is a closely-controlled animal, and a blast of rage like the one exhibited in Keenan’s voice is a rarity in their performances. On the lighter, more comedic side of the performances, I was terribly excited to finally see a live performance of “Cuntry Boner”, as ridiculous as the song is.

With that, Puscifer will take themselves and their sprawling technicolor freakshow down to Stockton, before flying up to Seattle as their tour continues. It will be difficult to find a show as theatrical as those that the band exhibited across these two nights. Most of the performances of this day and age are either solidly about the music — a noble goal, but usually at the cost of an exciting show — or solidly about showmanship, which causes the music to suffer. Puscifer is an excellent gel between the two avenues of performance, and I am extremely glad that I was able to see it: the collective unconscious that makes up the whimsical, if somewhat depraved, thoughts of Maynard James Keenan.

Puscifer's setlist for 11/5/2009

Puscifer's setlist for 11/5/2009

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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