Concert Review: Les Claypool and the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade — Outta Sight
By Scott McLennan
For all its forays into the wild, rangy and trippy realms of music, this show was very much an excellently guided trip.
Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, June 29 at the MGM Music Hall, Boston
Riddles are abound when Les Claypool comes to town.
Les Claypool led his Fearless Flying Frog Brigade into the MGM Music Hall in Boston on June 29, deploying a two-plus-hour psychedelic assault on the senses that raised the following questions:
When exactly did Sean Lennon become such a scrappy virtuoso on guitar?
How is it that Pink Floyd’s Animals is so often overshadowed by companion epics Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall?
Why the hell did it take Claypool so long to reconvene the Frog Brigade?
Claypool’s main gig is playing bass and singing in the alt-prog trio Primus he founded in the mid-’80s and that rose to fame as oddball provocateurs in the ’90s. But in 2000, Claypool put Primus on hold and formed the Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. The band focused on songs that Claypool had written outside of Primus (such as “Riddles Are Abound Tonight”) plus covers of songs by King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and others. In 2002, the Brigade released Purple Onion, an album of fresh original material.
And then the Brigade vanished.
Earlier this year, Claypool announced he’d resurrect the Frog Brigade for an extensive tour. The 2023 lineup for this ensemble is vastly different from the one Claypool used to introduce this concept. However, the same spirit permeates the modern Frog brigade.
Vibraphone player Mike Dillon is back in the fold, having joined the Brigade in 2002 for Purple Onion and has since played in other projects with Claypool. Guitarist Sean Lennon (John and Yoko’s son) and drummer Paulo Baldi arrived in the Brigade through other Claypool-led projects. Keyboard player Harry Waters is the newest member of the Claypool musical universe and is well-trained for the job having performed songs from the Pink Floyd catalog with his father Roger Waters’ band.
The band entered with in what passed for military regalia, save for Claypool, who was wearing his trademark bowler and dapper “maybe bespoke, maybe thrift shop” suit.
The Brigade opened with the surging “Up on the Roof,” and Claypool followed up with a story about how the song was inspired by a contractor friend who had a “tweaker” employee he could only keep at job sites by assigning him to roof work and then removing the ladders until the work was done.
Claypool probably has those kind of backstories for everything he played, but he just shared one. Still, the anecdote underscored his talent for taking little bits and pieces of the everyday lives we live and twisting them up into colorful musical fantasies.
“David Makalaster” was a satirical stab at the soothing dreams we plug into to avoid anything ugly or painful. The tune evolved into a crazed psychedelic jig.
Performances of the operatic “Phantom Patriot” (another song ripped from the headlines about a man arrested for an attempted raid on San Francisco’s Bohemian Grove enclave for the super-rich) and the two-part “Cricket and the Genie,” from the Claypool Lennon Delirium catalog, fleshed out this band’s broad palette of sounds.
Lennon in particular was outstanding, playing everything with a real sense of adventure yet still keeping melodies and grooves on track. Dillon was the band’s secret weapon, doing bust-out vibes solos or locking into frantic duo jams with Claypool, whose bass work remains unparalleled in the rock realm. The guy plays with a gut-punch ferocity but never pummels his audience; it’s like watching death metal but hearing jazz.
The centerpiece of the concert was a complete reading of Pink Floyd’s Animals. The Brigade entranced the packed music hall for an hour, methodically coursing through parables that featured sheep, dogs, and pigs. Every member on the stage — and it seemed every person in the audience — had a deeply felt connection to the classic-rock album. All of those emotional touchstones surfaced in what came off as a grand consummation.
Rather than focus on a slavish recreation of Animals, the Brigade found opportunities to put its own stamp on the work. The big instrumental jam in “Dogs,” for instance, opened up into vistas unexplored in Pink Floyd’s original.
The Brigade lurched from the jagged beauty of Animals to the outright absurdity of “Precipitation,” a song Claypool performed in grand theatrical fashion wearing a pig-face mask and playing an upright bass.
After the big funky crunch of “Amanitas,” Claypool surveyed the crowd. Did they want to hear a funny song or a dark song? The results were overwhelmingly in favor of dark, and the Brigade played its second-ever version of “Lust Stings,” an ugly little stab at loneliness and STDs.
Following Waters’ dip into Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” the main set ended with the band playing the roaring, picaresque “One Better.”
Claypool emerged for the encores wearing a disco-ball helmet and cranking out the instrumental “Whamola.” For its finale, the Brigade borrowed “Southbound Pachyderm” from Primus. They had hinted we’d get here eventually by teasing licks of the song earlier in the show. For all its forays into the wild, rangy and trippy realms of music, this show was very much an excellently guided trip.
Instrumental ensemble The Budos Band played a gripping opening set. Budos mashed up genres and world-music influences for a propulsive 45-minute show that features material from its new Frontier’s Edge record.
Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.