Concert review: Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade | 10.17.23, The Factory

Look, if Les Claypool tells me to show up at the concert in costume and let my “frog flag fly,” I most certainly am going to oblige. And so, my husband and I arrived in hazmat yellow and hot pink jumpsuits with crazy sunglasses and obnoxious hats and bonnets, respectively. It seems no one else got the memo, however. Maybe the Chesterfield audience doesn’t party that way, or perhaps we are just exceptionally dedicated to shows in costumes. Either way, we stood out as the lone frog freaks in a sea of normally-attired concert-goers on the Factory floor. The downside was that we looked like a couple of overly enthusiastic dorks. The bright sides, however, made it all worthwhile. Not only were we very easy for our many other friends in attendance to spot in a crowd, but I contend that being costumed like a weirdo was the best way to experience the splendor that Claypool and his band of merry musicians brought to St. Louis on Tuesday night.

The amount of talent on that stage, and the uniqueness of the instrumentation, made this music dork positively giddy. Not only did we have the ground-breaking Claypool on bass, but with St. Louis being a little later in the tour, we were treated to the return of Skerik on saxophone post-shoulder injury. Sean Lennon, or “Shiner,” as Claypool referred to him, a previous collaborator in The Claypool Lennon Delirium, joined the Brigade on guitar. On vibes – a treat in its own right – was Mike Dillon, whom I had the pleasure to see in 2009 when Claypool was touring the Of Fungi and Foe album and was thrilled to see again amongst the crew. Rounding out the stage was drummer Paolo Baldi, another veteran of Delirium and member of Claypool’s exceptional Fancy Band, as well as Harry Waters on keys, who was perhaps the least storied with Claypool and a brilliant addition for the Pink Floyd material.

The single-act bill was pitched as a return of Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade collective after a 20-year hiatus, performing the entirety of Pink Floyd’s Animals. In addition, we were told the playlist would be stacked with a sampling of Claypool’s many and varied post-Primus projects. Ultimately, my great anticipation for this show, on display in that hot pink jumpsuit, still paled in comparison to the thrilling execution of the Frog Brigade’s thoughtfully selected setlist.

Right out of the gate, they launched into a cover of King Crimson’s “Thela Hun Ginjeet,” the first track on the Live Frogs: Sets 1 & 2 album, and a roaring jam with bouncy bass and plenty of solo opportunities. This seemed a logical place to start, but was followed by a delightful surprise of “Amanitas” from the aforementioned and lesser-known album, Of Fungi and Foe. As Claypool grumbled,“I can feel your poison,”alongside Baldi’s perfectly clattery drums, it became clear this was not a greatest hits tour but an expertly curated selection of material designed to showcase the oodles of talent on tour. Surprises continued with a groovy performance of the English Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom,” which Claypool has unleashed specifically for this tour, and “Thai Noodles,” from 2004’s The Big Eyeball in the Sky by another beloved Colonel Claypool project, Bucket of Bernie Brains.

The musicians wasted little time in banter, focusing primarily on extended solos around the stage, granting each artist an opportunity they seized to shine. The scant chatter asked the crowd how they felt about the still relatively new venue, The Factory, and admiring the unusual, glowing turbine-like chandeliers, which reminded Lennon of “platonic solids” and led Claypool’s imagination first to spinning nipples and ultimately to a testicle grinder. Vivid imagery indeed. In general, Claypool seemed in the highest spirits and lightest mood I have seen him in years, no doubt because of the platonic solid arrangement of talented, creative, and perfectly matched artists he has assembled throughout his career, now joining him onstage.

Dressed in coordinating attire of green military jackets and caps of the captain- or pith helmet variety (with the exception of Lennon, who matched his cap with a motorcycle jacket), this Brigade finished Set 1 with some deep cuts: “Holy Mackerel,” reaching all the way back to 1996’s Highball with the Devil by yet another project, Les Claypool and The Holy Mackerel, as well as “D’s Diner,” from the original Frog Brigade studio album, Purple Onion, released in 2002.

I could have easily left a happy fan at this point. But I knew of more greatness yet to come. Set 2 would bring us “Pigs on the Wing,” “Dogs,” Sheep,” and more Pigs delivered in Claypool’s distinctly eerie and bass-driven sound. Forgive the unpopular opinion, but I genuinely prefer Claypool’s vision of Animals to the original Pink Floyd recordings. Honestly, the Frog Brigade work was something of a gateway for me to approach Pink Floyd, and the darker, more sinister-sounding take on the legendary album first reeled me into the realm of Pink Floyd. Claypool’s musical vision sits at the intersection of metal & hippie culture, a particularly sweet spot for me, and in the more-than-twenty years since Live Frogs: Sets 1 & 2 brought these worlds together for me, I’ve found enjoyment throughout Pink Floyd’s extensive catalog, even attending a few El Monstero shows with their faithful renditions. But Claypool’s interpretation was my first and has always been my favorite.  

Of all the selections that evening, the Animals performance was the only section that disappointed, and then only in the slightest. The composition felt sparse, thin, diminished in power from the sound I’ve come to expect after playing the live album countless times over the years. I think it’s the quality of Lennon’s sparkly green guitar, too clean and stripped-down for the richness I anticipated. But again, the disappointment was only relative to the glory of the rest of the set, which only got better with each selection. And where the guitar lacked, the vocals during this set, coming in large part from the keyboardist, were noticeably emotive and spot-on. Come to find out, Harry Waters is Rogers Waters son. And – mind blown. No wonder he nailed it. Apparently, he has grown up with this material, and according to professor Wiki, he can be heard on “Goodbye Blue Sky” at the tender age of 2 years old. Turns out my gushing over this treatment of the material was factually justified.

Following the Animals section, the Frog Brigade set off on another tour across the projects. Claypool disappeared briefly and returned in his pig half-mask, chanting “rain rain rain rain” with his bandmates for “Precipitation,” which stoked the fires of the Electric Forest fans who have likely heard this RatDog collaboration in the festival circuit. I kept waiting for Claypool to switch the pig mask for the gagged horse mask on a mic stand behind him, but it seems that prop was for display only, a lone bit of flair among the otherwise sedate aesthetic of spinning circular lights and trademark stars along the backdrop.

The remaining songs continued the metal/hippie vibe just the way I like it – meandering jams on unusual, ominous-sounding instruments. Dillon pounded away on vibraphone solos with a frenzied speed that blurred the sticks like a cartoon running in place. Skerik made sounds I never knew a saxophone could make: Where did that other guitar come from? Is that a child crying? Nope, it’s Skerik on electric sax, sometimes muted, sometimes full brass, always stunning in sound and stretching that solo beyond belief before shaking out his arms and face like snapping himself out of a trance.

We got another bit of ska in a cover of the Madness song “One Step Beyond.” We got “David Makalaster,” with a little “Southbound Pachyderm” injection, followed by “David Makalaster II,” all bringing much to joy to Lennon who – as an illustration on a retrieved setlist revealed – glows when he gets to play both pieces in sequence, earning his “Shiner” nickname that night. We got a little more Holy Mackerel material before the stunning conclusion of the evening.

Part of the fun of such an improvisational group is parsing out the bonus references worked into the music, sometimes just a nod or a playful tease. Murmurs of those first chugging chords of “Locomotive Breath,” however, were the real deal, and the Frog Brigade swapped the flute for saxophone in a rare treat of the Jethro Tull song, first presented live at Bonnaroo 2002. The penultimate selection, “Lust Stings,” rounded out the catalog with the evening’s only track from 2006’s Of Whales and Woe, giving Skerik on more chance to dazzle us with his gritty, sassy saxophone. The farewell brought us an epic “Cosmic Highway,” another gem from Bucket of Bernie Brains, and we sang “to the moon” and “to the sun” along with the crew until the house music finally brought down the proverbial curtains.

It was a low-fashion, high-form evening with little flash: almost no light display, in contrast to many of Claypool’s past stage sets, almost no dancing, where Claypool’s duckwalk has become near-standard, and almost no costumery, amongst the band and in the crowd, much to my awkward dismay. But in all truthfulness, I think my ridiculous getup only served to make me feel more at home and in some way in cahoots with the weirdness of sounds emanating from the stage. Peering over my heart-shaped sunglasses furthered the vibe of another dimension. It was Claypool’s world for the evening, and I was pleased as punch to exist in it. | Courtney Dowdall

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