Show Review: Tool with Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 7/12/2010

by Jonathan Pirro on July 13, 2010

no one is innocent (photo by Shannon Hazelip)

no one is innocent (photo by Shannon Hazelip)

I will preface this review by stating a fact which, while well known to my friends and colleagues, is not widely expressed within my concert reviews, given their number and the scale of the bands that I go to see. This fact is a simple one: I loathe arena shows. I’m more specifically referring to any venue that seats over 10,000 people, although 7,000 — the capacity of the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — is pushing my limit to a mild degree. The fact of the matter is, however, that there will always be certain bands that are far, far too big to play in small clubs, large theaters, or even modest amphitheaters, and these bands will be reason enough for me to go, no matter the size of the venue. These bands will be the driving force behind the show that they put on; this is no festival with twenty acts, nor a set of competing giants wrestling for the title of “biggest rock god ever”. This is a band that has been around for nigh-on twenty years; in fact, the singer was heard tonight saying, “Pop quiz: how many of you are under 21? Really? Well, you weren’t even alive when this song was written.”

Who would this be? Tool, of course.

It has been three years since Tool wandered into the city limits of San Francisco, bringing along their technicolor freakshow of lasers, more lights than you’d see on the average Bay Area city thoroughfare, and crushing, pummeling blasts of metal and associated “thinking man’s heaviness”. They also showed up at the same venue they took over in 2007 — the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium — and even brought along the same special guest that they’d had for their last San Francisco show. While on that occasion he was a special guest, Jello Biafra took the stage tonight with his new band — the wonderfully-politically-incorrect Guantanamo School Of Medicine — and played a blistering set. The last time I saw Jello onstage, he was turning 50 that night; if his energy was any indication, he seems to have been aging backwards, based on the onstage vitality that he employed for tonight’s performance. Despite the abysmal response from the crowd — there were maybe 10 people in the sea of several thousand who were moving around, let alone bouncing like pinballs or waving their arms around — Jello and his new band tore through their set at breakneck pace, and did manage to garner a lukewarm response during performances of “California Uber Alles”, and the closer, “Holiday In Cambodia”, from the Dead Kennedys fans in the crowd. I felt more than a little ashamed to be amongst members of the crowd who were booing him during his small political jabs that he used as segues between songs, but my own excitement over Jello’s set was enough to eclipse even that.

However, for as energetic and wild as Jello Biafra and his riotous new crew could be, the reaction from the crowd was of unfathomable joy when, barely more than 30 minutes after the openers had left the stage, the lights suddenly snapped off across the sides of the arena. A thin green haze hung over the crowd on the floor, and it was as if some sort of prophet had walked onto the stage; it was difficult to see a pair of arms that were not raised, or to hear a voice that was not roaring its approval. The back wall of the arena clicked its way to life, displaying a glowing effigy of Timothy Leary which spoke the words of his infamous “How to Operate Your Brain” guided meditation. Those of us who were hardcore fans had an inkling of what was to come, and we were rewarded for our wishes; moments after Tool took the stage, the arena was brought to its feet with the snarling, spiraling bass and drums that made up the introduction to “Third Eye”, the seventeen-plus-minute-thunderstorm that, incidentally, was the opening track on their live record, Salival. The earsplitting howl that rocked the venue nearly twenty minutes later was definite proof: Tool had returned to San Francisco, and were ready to deliver an even more astonishing show than they had three years ago.

Adding to the already-elaborate set that they constantly tour with, Tool’s stage was built nearly entirely out of screens — behind singer Maynard James Keenan and drummer Danny Carey, as well as built into their respective risers, and even on sections of the floor surrounding bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones. Coupled with this were two large screens, one on either side of the stage, and a set of smaller ones that lined up in a neat row near the ceiling. To top things off, there were two more screens that hung down on either side of the stage, and shifted angle, position, and height throughout the night — for the last song before the encore, the screens were lowered all the way to the stage itself, providing impressive backdrops for Justin and Adam. Lastly, of course, it wouldn’t be a Tool show without an obnoxious amount of lights and lasers, and both were out in full force; the lasers first came into being about four songs into the set, with their performance of “Vicarious”, and stayed alive through most of the set, creating a luminescent canopy over the awed crowd.

Tool is notable for bending the rules of their songs when they play them live, and tonight’s show was no exception, perhaps even moreso than their 2007 performance. Numerous songs in the set — the aforementioned “Third Eye”, classics “Stinkfist” and “Schism”, and the monumental first encore, “Lateralus” — were filled with extensive new sections, some going on for several minutes and drawing upon Adam and Danny for some impressive, violent guitar and drum solos. Nearly all of the songs had some sort of extension to one or more of their parts, in addition to the extended songs that dominated the set. For added flavor, Adam’s guitar tone screeched through an impressive echelon of frequencies, and Maynard applied his “megaphone mic” — the name given to his hand-held microphone that produced a distorted, almost telephone-like masking to his voice — to quite a few of the songs. (For “Vicarious”, in fact, he and the rest of the band egged the crowd on in singing the words to the final verse — a sight not often seen at a Tool concert.)

The aforementioned joke that Maynard made — in regards to younger Tool fans who weren’t yet born at the time of some of the band’s songwriting — was used as the introduction to “Intolerance”, the first track from the band’s debut album Undertow. While the surprisingly-added solo and extensive ending were excellent new additions to the performance, the song itself was the highlight of the set for me as it was my first time seeing the band perform it. Most of Tool’s older catalogue is not often featured in their shows, aside from the single “Sober” (which, curiously, seems conspicuously absent from this tour’s setlists), so getting anything from Undertow in the course of a live show is a real treat for fans who were introduced to the band with that record. I had the similar experience in 2007, when the debut-album-song-of-the-set was “Flood” — itself a fan favorite but a rarely-performed piece — but “Intolerance” is such a memorable piece, as it is the opening track to Tool’s first body of work, and its repetition, shouting, and ever-increasing pitch on behalf of Maynard leaves the average singing-along fan with a sore throat and a lack of oxygen, in addition to a wild sense of excitement towards the rest of the record — or, in this case, the rest of the set.

The final cohesive pieces of the show were the extensive interludes that Tool conjured up between their songs. Employing spacelike synthesizers, haunting riffs from Adam (delicately balanced by Danny’s soft cymbal rolls), and Justin’s otherworldly bass sounds, many of the songs blended seamlessly together, all the while surprising the crowd with each new full song that was performed. Only the video screens (for “Vicarious”) and the segue track “Eon Blue Apocalypse” were clues to the next songs in the set; one of the in-between songs, in fact, sounded remarkably like the short piece “Lost Keys”, but was, in contrast to the record, not followed by the churning 12-minute saga of “Rosetta Stoned” — in this case, it was the single “Schism”, which, as mentioned, got its own little extension: the bridge was played at double tempo, extended, and had at least two extra solos thrown into place, before careening back into the song the track even attempted to take on the album.

This was my fifth Tool show, and I must say that the band has reached a peak of musicianship. Despite the fanbase upset over a setlist that seems to be repeated most nights over the course of this tour, it’s a setlist with some unexpected classics, and each song has taken on an entirely different form, whether from the album’s original crafting or even from previous live performances. Those bemoaning the $70 ticket price and the ostentatious merchandise prices found themselves equally floored by the visuals of the performance, a stage show which guitarist Adam Jones has described as: “All the senses…on overdrive. More lights, more visuals, more lasers, more soundscapes.” With the tour coming to a close in a few short weeks, perhaps we will see the next chapter of Tool in the form of whatever new brilliance they are able to craft in their upcoming studio work… and I, for one, will be waiting for them to come back to San Francisco in 2013 — if not earlier.

Tool's setlist

Tool's setlist

Jonathan Pirro

Off-kilter multimedia enthusiast.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Jay July 13, 2010 at 4:30 pm

This is a great review — very well written. This captures the essence of the experience, which is not easy to do for a Tool show. You’ve managed to articulate many of my own feelings and observations about the show, but which I could not easily put to words. Thanks!

I too am a huge fan; this was my 35th Tool show. Forgive me, but I want to offer a few corrections from my perspective.

Maynard’s intro to Intolerance was, “How many of you are under 21? You were sperm when we wrote this song.”

On never playing large theaters: Tool often precedes their main tour with a mini/warm-up tour of smaller venues. For example, in 1998, 2001 and 2006 they played 2000-3000 capacity theaters (Palladium, Wiltern, Orpheum, Berkeley Community Theater) before moving on to venues with up to 20,000. This is a great way to see them!

On Flood being “rarely-performed”, this is only true in the last couple of tours. On their 1998 tour, they closed most (all?) of the 41 shows with Flood – I’ve heard it at a dozen shows (including the Red Rocks show two weeks ago). This is one of my favorites to hear live! Rarely performed songs include 4 degrees, Bottom, even Right in Two.

On the “obnoxious amount of lights and lasers” being fundamental to Tool shows: they only introduced lasers in the 10,000 Days tours. Most of the shows I’ve seen had less intense visuals, though I welcome the augmentation!

On Undertow being their first body of work: don’t forget the Opiate EP from 2 years earlier!

I predict/hope we’ll see them again in 2012! 🙂

take care,
Jay

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Tony July 14, 2010 at 8:12 am

Good review, I don’t even like Tool but still enjoyed reading the review.

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Gordon Elgart July 14, 2010 at 8:20 am

Saw the show last night in Sacramento and didn’t want spoilers in advance. I’ll tell you the differences. When he introduced “Intolerance,” he asked:

“How many of you have seen Back to the Future? You know when Michael J Fox travels back to the future and then back and then sees himself in the future but in the past and then the future? This is kind of like that.” (A bit paraphrased.)

For “Lateralus,” Andrew and Jon Weiss, the rhythm section of the Guantanamo School of Medicine, joined Tool on stage. The bass player, Andrew, got to do some serious soloing, while Jon, the drummer, seemed lost, and I don’t think they even turned on his drum mics.

It was a really cool show, and even though it was at Arco Arena, it felt oddly intimate. Possibly due to my fourth row seats, but more likely do to the expansiveness of the lights and music.

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Phillip Ranelli July 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm

J. Pirro thank you for your dead on review of 7/12 TOOL and Jello at Civic CTR!!!
Phillip

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