I’m going to be turning 30 later this month, and I’ve already got a grand party planned out. It’s a jovial occasion in recognition of youth and times gone by, as much as it is one of the future to come and a chance to just let loose in the present moment with my closest friends. With the experiences I’ve had and the frequently wonderful, often chaotic, but always memorable memories that come from them, there’s an awful lot that has happened to me in the 3 decades I’ve spent on the planet. I can only begin to imagine when doing something like this will be in decades to come, but I can only hope that it is anything close to the fantastic evening that Maynard James Keenan, world-renowned musician and dedicatedly rustic winemaker, shared with close friends and hardcore fans alike in celebration of his 50th birthday.
As the sun set below the horizon and the last rays of sunshine disappeared behind the upper seats of the famous Greek Theatre in Hollywood, a large collection of players spilled out onto the stage, behind the snarling, droll and hilariously revolting Neil Hamburger, a performance artist known for his “anti-comic” presence, frequently selected to emcee the evenings of similarly dark-humored artists. The man of the hour was one of the last to emerge, following the arrival of the various members of two of his other musical projects — Puscifer and A Perfect Circle — who slipped into short lawn chairs and stools, set between the drum kits and piles of amps and instruments.
Keenan took his own place behind a microphone slightly off from the middle of the stage, while the places on the edge of the stage were set upon by Ken Andrews, Greg Edwards and Kellii Scott, the original members of the Los Angeles dark-alt-rock threesome known as Failure. Joined by Carina Round (from Puscifer) and Billy Howerdel (from A Perfect Circle), the trio, with Keenan and Andrews trading vocals for a beautiful, hauntingly fragile performance of Failure’s “The Nurse Who Loved Me” to begin the evening. To the nearly 6,000 assembled fans before him, who howled with cheers and applause nearly as loud as the music onstage, Keenan offered a greeting and welcoming toast to from a wine-stemmed red Solo cup, before melting into the shadows behind Failure as an enigmatic smile graced his features — one of many wonderful surprises for the evening.
While Failure had taken places to kick off the show, the entire stage was set to allow all three bands to come and go at will, with Scott’s drum kit being regularly switched out (pulled behind a curtain that served as a projection surface for the night) with that of Jeff Friedl, who took up double duties for A Perfect Circle and Puscifer that night. In the few moments where he was not offering his own vocals to the music around him, Keenan was both the honored guest and the esteemed host of his onstage assembly of guests, and walked around offering bits of conversation and generous pours of his own wine to those who gathered near the small tables placed about the stage.
When not offering primary or accompanying roles in any of the bands onstage, Round and Howerdel passed a few cameras between each other and the gathered friends, both posing for portraits and pointing out to the jubilant crowd fanned out around them. It was as much a rollicking party as it was an intimate jam session between close friends, a joyous display of the connectivity and friendship between so many talented artists, all tracing back to the man whose fifth decade on this planet was the focal point of festivity. Despite rarely stepping across the fourth wall to directly recognize their onlookers, the players onstage tore through a pair of massive sets that showcased the mesmerizing catalogue of work that the three main bands had to offer.
Across the full night of music, each band played 3 sets of 3 songs each, with Puscifer squeezing in a snarling, eerie performance of “Breathe” right before the intermission that offered a breather in the middle of the evening (punctuated by Keenan exclaiming “Grandpa needs to take a break!” before departing from the stage). As with the beginning of Failure’s set, numerous collaborations also popped up throughout the set, each one a delightful surprise to the audience that beheld them. Round joined the men of A Perfect Circle to take lead vocal duties over for the first half of “The Package”, the song taking on a stunning, sultry mood with her darkly seductive tones; Keenan and Friedl joined Failure for an absolutely mind-bending performance of “Solaris”; Andrews, meanwhile, returned the favor with backup vocals and bass on “The Undertaker”; even James Iha, outside of his rhythm guitar role in A Perfect Circle, offered backing guitars to numerous Puscifer numbers, including the sinister march of “Trekka” and the roaring onslaught of “Man Overboard”.
Thunderous screaming signaled the start of the encore as Danney Carey, easily recognized by the audience as the drummer of Tool, was wheeled onto the stage astride his titanic drum set before the onstage collective sprang into the ridiculous parody-western tune “Cuntry Boner”, with Keenan appearing onstage as his alternate Graceland-stereotype-persona Billy D. Before any more guesses about the encore could be made, however, Bill Manspeaker, the singer of seminal noise-punk band Green Jellÿ, hurtled onto the stage to kick off an explosive performance of “3 Little Pigs”, with Keenan offering a nail-biting falsetto part as the voice of the pigs, as the musicians onstage donned grotesquely huge blow-up masks and churned through the obnoxiously monotonous number. The excitement of the audience, however, reached a fever pitch with the sudden appearance of bassist Justin Chancellor, who joined Carey and Keenan to form 3/4 of the lineup of Tool and ripped their way through an astonishing performance of “Sober” — arguably the most popular and memorable Tool song to date — as the audience before them screamed with a Beatlemania-like insanity. Not content with leaving the stage with the dust still hanging in the crackling air, Keenan and his consortium closed out the night with the gorgeously somber “The Humbling River”, with all assembled parties waving fond farewells as they departed from the stage amidst the ecstasy of cheers.
The legacy of Maynard James Keenan, as a fiercely recognizable performer and tremendous musical artist, is one that has led his onlookers to follow him down many paths of musical exploration, and breathe new life into the worlds of primeval, intricate metal and artistic industrial alt-rock. Unlike the oft-obscured persona and ephemeral onstage presence that he is known for, however, the celebration of Keenan’s fiftieth year was a beautiful and wonderfully personal night of joy and camaraderie that saw him standing in the light rather than hiding in the shadows, a smile of contentment upon his countenance rather than a grimace of concentration. Though the armor and mystery were discarded, the austerity of the evening never took away from the magnificent presence that emanated from Keenan over the course of that chilly evening on the brink of summer, and the three hours of music that he conducted to usher in his golden jubilee were nothing short of wondrous, hilarious, terrifying, and mesmerizing all at once.
Happy Birthday, Maynard James Keenan — here’s to another fifty fantastic years!
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2014 Jonathan Pirro.