To be or not to be … or why not just be both? At least that’s the motto Maynard James Keenan has uncovered in his subtle yet strange metamorphosis towards a modern day version of a bipolar Bard. Once unencumbered by the dark cavern of his highly-stylized Tool and A Perfect Circle cocoon, Keenan found light-heartedness in 2007 with the emergence of Puscifer, a dramedy musical act he founded in the L.A. comedy clubs that, much like Shakespeare, can be deeply poetic and chokingly funny from one scene to the next … and like the best theatre, not always pre-planned.
Such was the case when Puscifer dominated the stage at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, a venue operated by Broadway in Chicago and normally home to mainstream musical productions including Aida, The Color Purple, and Wicked. Yet under Keenan’s creative direction, the front of house was quite literally thrown down on Dorothy’s feet much to the delight of the munchkins or, as the song goes, the “Tiny Monsters” in the crowd who obliged to pop up out of their seats as the Napoleon-like singer, under the security of his wide-brimmed cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, berated the pressed-shirt ushers for urging the motivated crowd to sit down during mobilizing numbers. We’ll let you guess who won that duel.
The siege started even before Keenan and his motley crew of musicians took the stage as a bewildering mockumentary played on a small screen in the stage swap interim after evocative opener (and Puscifer backup vocalist) Carina Round. The film profiled the trials and musings of beleaguered characters Billy D and Hildy (played by Keenan and Mr. Show’s Laura Milligan) as they took their knock-off Johnny and June tour across the country. How this fits in to the moody, desert theme of the rest of the performance we’re not sure, but the film was entertaining nonetheless and should be a model for other acts to sway the boredom of fans as they endure longer and longer set changes.
Once Keenan took the stage, he did not come alone. As he murmured an inspired monologue about sustainability and “never taking a breath without creating something,” the singer pulled behind him a mini Airstream and began to layout picnic tables, stadium chairs, and even a barbecue grill like potpourri along the rim of the stage. Meanwhile, a slew of musicians marched on and a few extras (mainly from Round’s crew) grabbed their glasses of wine (no doubt from Keenan’s Caduceus Cellars) and began a round of Rummy at one of the tables.
If anything seemed random, it did not seem without purpose - such was the grandeur Keenan gave the crowd during his opening speech, and followed through in an evening that was every bit as rich as it was thematically barren, Keenan’s beloved Arizona landscape and culture playing an overarching major character in the production.
Yet beyond the choreography of props was the orchestration of charged music so combustible it could have quickly overtaken all the gingham targets. Most of the night’s lineup was from Puscifer’s latest, Conditions of My Parole, with its first non-genital-referencing name that may have provided a soft spot for Keenan. Numbers like “Oceans” and “Monsoons” were an exploration of breadth and depth as evidenced by the massive, IMAX-inspired Nat Geo film reels playing behind a diminutized Keenan, a feeble attempt at the man vs. nature discussions of the modern world.
Tool and A Perfect Circle fans, have no fear, the set also included the bolder numbers like “Toma” and “REV 22:20”, which featured the buxom Carina Round imparting devilish grins and vocal furor on chorus “she will eat you alive.”
Round for much of the show became the balancing act for Keenan and a carnivorous show stealer in her own right. The English charmer’s opening set, which debuted a number of her dramatic, rock-infused songs to a bipartisan crowd who either loved her or was prematurely vocal about wanting the main attraction, was as glowing as the onstage Lite Brite marquee bearing her name. New single “This is the Last Time” proved her natural talent as a frontwoman and was so impressively played it broke a guitar strap and also garnered a man in the audience a free vinyl recording for flattering Round by singing along to every word. Although one of the first big exposures in America for Round, this was clearly not the last time for her appearances stateside, solo or as an ensemble of Puscifer … then again, if you can be both, why not?