By The Kayceman
The progression is actually quite logical. Always a master a musician sitting on the fringes of the mainstream map Les Claypool has defied classification for years. From his insane slaphappy weasel days with Primus and Sausage the talent has been bubbling over since he first stepped foot into the music world. Coming out of the aggressive, powerful music that became Claypool’s calling card a new, more experimental sound has risen out of the angst.
When one considers the scope of activities that Les Claypool is involved in, it appears that trying to pigeonhole this maniac is absolutely impossible. Not only is Les the bassist extraordinaire that he has become famous for, he is also a vocalist, songwriter, producer, video director, cartoonist, screenwriter, record label owner, interactive design artist, and all around general freak.
This array of talents and obvious desire, has led Claypool to share time both on stage and in the recording studio with such a variety of amazing musicians that again staying off the classification radar is pretty much the only classification one can put on him. Outside of his Primus and Sausage days featuring Jay Lane on drums and Todd Huth on guitar, Claypool has organized various other outfits, one of which being, Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel. The Holy Mackerel consisted of, in addition to Claypool, Jay Lane, Henry Rollins and Blue Note master Charlie Hunter. You can also find Les working on albums ranging from Tom Waits, Rob Wasserman, and Kenny Wayne Sheppard, to Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains. From there the list only gets more diverse and astounding.
Coming out of the Primus scene, which Claypool described as a, “big ugly testosterone filled rock world” Les found his creative piece of mind in the fertile Jazz Fest scene of New Orleans. Two years ago Les blew the minds of music fans everywhere when he collaborated with classically trained Police drummer Stewart Copeland, and guitar god Trey Anastasio. The three piece took the name Oysterhead, and proceeded to change the pre-conceived notions surrounding Claypool, and Copeland for that matter. The trio enjoyed playing together so much that they recently slipped away to Trey’s barn in Vermont where they recorded and mixed tracks for the Oysterhead album, The Grand Pecking Order, which is out on Elektra records now. It was the awesome collaborative efforts of Oysterhead, which planted the seed for Les’s latest, and possibly most amazing collaboration to date, Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade.
The evolution of the Frog Brigade finds its roots in what was slated to be a one-time gig at last years Mountain Aire Festival, over memorial-day weekend. Even the name was part of Mountain Aire. You see the festival takes place in Calaveras County, which just so happens to be the home of the “Calaveras County Frog Jump.” So seeing as how the band was playing in the heart of Frog Jumping land, not to mention the always creatively bizarre Claypool was brainstorming for the name, we find life being given to Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade.
The Frog Brigade brings members of Claypool’s past together with some new talent to create an all-star cast of freaks. On drums is the familiar Jay Lane who has been with Les for years playing in both Primus, and Sausage, while doing RatDog on his own. In addition to Lane, Rat Dog lends another musician to the mix, the well-rounded Jeff Chimenti on keys. As if playing in RatDog and with Claypool aren’t accolades enough, Chimenti’s resume reads like a roll call for submissions to the hall of fame, as he has shared time with the likes of Phil Lesh, Pharoah Sanders, En Vogue, and Frank Morgan, just to name a few. From there we find another old Claypool associate, Todd Huth on guitar. Besides fronting his own band, Porch, Huth has played with Claypool in Primus, and he rounded out the power trio Sausage with Lane. On saxophone for the Flying Frog Brigade we find one of the most cutting edge, creative artists of our time. The man goes by one name, Skerik, and he is the ultimate compliment to Les Claypool. Skerik hails from Seattle where he gave birth to the groundbreaking group, Critters Buggin. But this only touches the tip of Skerik’s iceberg. Skerik has been bringing his energetic, innovatively infectious sax sound to the forefront of music for years. He has played with bands such as Crack Sabbath, Tuatara, and Ponga, not to mention sitting in with just about everyone and anyone. He has long been a friend of New Orleans funk kings, Galactic, and even hit the road with Stanton Moore on his first solo project the three piece, All Kooked Out, with Charlie Hunter on guitar. Rounding out the esoteric band of misfits for Les’s Frog Brigade is a guitarist who is fairly new to the scene. Rumor has it that Les selected the blonde, dread lock ripper, Eenor from an ad placed in a bay area newspaper.
While the collaboration was only designed for one show at Mountain Aire, the energy exchanged between musicians and crowd led to a pair of cross country tours being put together. Claypool described the experience as “boundary-less music. Music for music’s sake.” Feeding off the inspirational, new blend of sounds, the Frog Brigade hit the road and proceeded to tear the roof off of America, not once but twice in the past year. Coming out of the initial cross-country barrage, Claypool released the first of two live albums covering the Flying Frog Brigade’s tour. The first album, (released last April on Les’s own Prawn Song label) appropriately titled “Live Frogs-Set 1” is a seven track set of music touching on old Sausage favorites, new never before heard material, and a few covers such as Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamonds,” and the ambitious King Crimson composition, “Thela hun Ginjeet.” Upon completion of the Frog’s most recent “Cosmic Highway Tour” which wrapped itself up in August, Claypool has released a second album, “Live Frogs-Set II” which consists solely of the Fearless Flying Frog Brigades now legendary rendition of Pink Floyd’s 1977 monster piece of work, Animals. All of the material found on the two Frog albums was recorded at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall last October 8th and 9th.
The choice of covers on the first album, and the fact that the second CD is all Animals, lends quite a bit of information into just what the Frog Brigade is doing. Claypool has described his new sound as, “kind of a King Crimson meets Pink Floyd, meets Frank Zappa type of thing.” And although it may seem obvious that Floyd and King Crimson have influenced the music, (by fact of the covers) there really may be no better way to describe this twisted, mind blowing music. The musicianship on stage is remarkably professional, but maintains a creative, loose, improvisational air that lends itself to more experimental sounds. We find Claypool emitting his heavy stage presence, reminiscent of the Primus days, yet infused with a slightly different aura. The theatrical element of the Frog Brigade coincided with the intimate Floyd connection, as Les has been seen donning his pigs mask and British war ensemble, while the rest of the band seems to have their share of outfits, ranging from horned helmets, to tulip hats. But the Floyd influence doesn’t stop there. It is almost as if the music Claypool is creating and performing is what Pink Floyd might sound like today. The dark overtones drawn up by the Frog Brigade, and the freaky voice of Claypool have created that same ‘mind-fuck’ mentality that Floyd personified. While teetering on the dark side of music, the interaction between these six musicians flirts with the twisted mentalities of Zappa as well, but it seems to be the familiarity of Lane on the drum kit, and Huth on guitar that open the doors for Claypool to really expand on his insane bass skills. As they travel the stratosphere of sound the band proves time and again that they are simply top-notch musicians. There is never a struggle for lead domination; they seem to move around each other, blending their unique styles like a band that’s been together for years. While the history of Les playing with Lane and Huth creates a stable foundation the addition of three new musicians creates a scope of sounds that is at times beyond comprehension.
Starting with the bass bombs of Claypool and the chops of Lane, Huth not only thrashes his guitar with his hands, he incorporates a voice box with a bizarre blend of guitar and vocals that serve to further twist the air waves. Thriving off the freaky as only Skerik does, he incorporated his own trademark style of saxophone squeals, as he demands attention, even when utilizing subtlety. Not only does Skerik play his sax through a thick array of effects and delays, creating sounds that have never before come out of a horn, he is the pinnacle of creative mayhem. It wouldn’t be odd at all to see Skerik yelling into the wrong end of his saxophone, while stepping on his pedals. You really could not pick a better compliment for Claypool than Skerik; the two just seem to be on the same page. From Skerik’s own form of stage dementia, to the disturbing sounds he creates, the two obviously feed off of each other, pushing their weirdness in new directions.
The ensemble is rounded off by the versatile Chimenti and newcomer Eenor. It is quite a joy to see a young new guitar player like Eenor, who is obviously capable of grabbing the listener’s attention, know his place well enough to back off and let the others do their thing as well. The well schooled, rock steady Chimenti is always there when needed. Never searching for the lime-light, yet finding himself basking in it at times, he helps set the gears for space mode as he tweaks his keys. With the likes of Lane slamming on the skins, and Claypool thumping the house, it seems almost too much to have Skerik, and Huth freaking their instruments at the same time. But that seems to be the beauty of this band. They are playing music, just to play music. They aren’t concerned with egos, and solos, they just want to rock your world.
And rock they do. As Floyd echoes in the mind, and Zappa inflections surface, the Fearless Frog’s pay heed to their heroes by not simply mimicking songs of old. Performing covers is a touchy subject within the experimental music world, but Claypool’s Frog’s do justice to both the original compositions, and they’re own art at the same time. They take their influences and expand on them, soaring past the predictable straight into uncharted territory. Besides paying homage to Pink Floyd and King Crimson the Frog Brigade has frequently covered the Beatles "Sgt. Peppers," which has been converted into "Col. Claypool’s Lonely Hearts Club Band." The tripped out evil rendition surpasses the original, giving us the version the Beatles would want us to have. While tiptoeing around classics like Sgt. Peppers the Frog Brigade also pays their respects by covering a note for note rendition of another Beatles staple, "A Little Help From My Friends." The borderline carnival freak-show atmosphere, coupled with truly innovatively insane music, sets the stage for a mind melting experience. As wonderful as the music is, it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the mainstream. But what else would one expect from the likes of Les Claypool.
While Claypool has maintained his amazingly busy schedule, creating new songs, practicing and recording for Oysterhead, running Prawn Song, and sitting in with just about everyone in the Bay area, it seems unthinkable that he has found the time or energy to further the Frog Brigade. But the Frog’s seem to be of the utmost importance to Les as he was equipped with a slew of new material and covers such as David Bowies “Major Tom” Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” and Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” to name a few, during his ludicrous cosmic run of the states this summer.
Although Les is obviously wrapped up in the world of the Flying Frogs he is not willing to let it consume him. The highly anticipated reunion of Trey, Copeland, and Claypool is now underway and they have been freaking out audiences this whole week. Since the inception of Oysterhead at Jazz Fest two years ago, the music world has been patiently awaiting a full-fledged tour. We can all bear a sigh of relief knowing that the three piece will be all over the country and even sliding up into Canada for a little extra ass kicking. With the impressive summer showing of the Frogs, and Trey having put together a solid tour, the chitchat surrounding the Oysterhead tour, may actually live up to the hype.
With so many Claypool options these days he truly seems to have fit right into the Jam world, perhaps he is even setting some precedents. Dates have already been set for the second annual New Years Frog Out which will be hoping into the The Fillmore in San Francisco. For those of you who have some how missed Les this summer, do yourselves a favor and see him when he comes to town this winter. The music is a must hear, and see, for fans of the heavy, but beware, I assure you it is not for the weak minded.
Photos: Jay Blakesberg