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Over the weekend: Puscifer at the Paramount Theatre

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Puscifer, Uncle Scratch's Gospel's Revival
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Paramount Theatre
Better than:
Watching old reruns of Hee Haw.

It would have been hard to predict the format and content of Saturday night's Puscifer show based solely on the outfit's studio recordings. A side project of Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, the band has offered albums marked largely by dark and brooding vocals and the industrial, driving rhythms. It's a sound that's been easy to connect to Keenan's work with Tool, as well as his other side project, A Perfect Circle. But the band left such cues behind on Saturday night in favor of an elaborate, coordinated stage show, one rooted deeply in the musical textures and cultural cues of vintage country music.

Puscifer's performance at the Paramount saw the band expanding the tongue-in-cheek country references first heard on 2007's  EP

Cuntry Boner

into a full-scale stage production. With a faux backwoods porch as a setting, the band offered full costumes, pre-recorded video clips and countrified, folksy versions of some of the darker tunes from albums like

"V" is for Vagina

. Keenan and Laura Milligan took the onstage the roles of Billy Dee and Hildy, respectively, and both sported ridiculous wigs and country-and-western garb to lend credence to their roles.

As the show's comedic and musical emcees, the couple led the band through tunes from the Puscifer catalogue. But in lieu of the choppy, distorted chords and guttural lyrics heard on the albums and remixes, the renditions were marked by crystalline stretches of pedal steel guitar, major and minor guitar chords spelled out on Martins and crooning duets that would seem appropriate on any Loretta Lynne album, except for the explicit lyrics.

The rest of the band members played a perfect foil to Keenan and Milligan. Guitarist Johnny Polanski, vocalist Carina Round and the rest of the ensemble played casually at different spots on the fake porch, sipping from a bottle of Jim Beam at times and reclining in rocking chairs at others. Such details lent the performance the feel of some sort of twisted hootenanny, a down-home, backwoods jam session from some twisted alternative universe.
The audience didn't seem to mind the shift in genre. Fans who had attended expecting the heavier, more forceful renditions of the songs found on the albums were on their feet, stomping along to the backwoods rhythms and hooting during country choruses.

While the group re-emerged in a more familiar form toward the end of the evening, the brunt of the evening was devoted to creating an episode of Hee Haw on Quaaludes. The scope of the production and the amount of detail helped the band achieve their goal, but the real success of the performance was in the quality of the band's country simulations. Songs like "Vagina Mine," "The Mission," "Queen B" and "Drunk With Power" became new songs with the band's novel country phrasings and speedy cadences. Indeed, any audience member literate with the examples of artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers and Willie Nelson would think the outfit a bona fide member of the flock.

The mood found support in the opening band, Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival. The two-member outfit set a comedic tone from the beginning, offering a running commentary as they set up their minimalistic stage kit before the show. With stripped-down odes to classic country structures, the duo set a mood with tunes like "I Banged a Sinner" and "Give Me Back My Bible." Neil Hamburger also contributed to the comedic feel of the evening, offering inappropriate jokes about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smash Mouth and Courtney Love.
But comedy and farce didn't rule the evening.

Where Uncle Scratch was raw and unrefined in their tributes to country and western models, Puscifer was sleek and well-honed. Even as a screen behind the set beamed clips of Billy Dee and Hildy giving interviews and getting into trouble in front of the trailer, the comedy of the night found a balance in quality of the band's performance. Keenan's voice was sterling on songs like "Sour Grapes," and Polanskit's soaring, piercing steel guitar runs on "Drunk With Power" made it sound like a completely new song.

Even though the group re-emerged minus its country trappings for the final five songs of the set, the strong impressions from their careful stage show weren't easy to shuck off. The band drew on theatrics for the final segment -- stripped of their country and western outfits, Keenan and Round stood behind screens during the performance of songs like "Momma Sed," "Potions" and "The Humbling River."The band, which had seemed specialized in one genre during the first part of the performance, quickly shifted to new musical contours without a pause. Steel pedal and acoustic guitars were replaced with thundering lines and dramatic drum rolls.

But the accomplishment of the "Burger Barns" segment of the concert didn't evaporate. Even though Puscifer showed its chops in its more predictable renditions, it felt as if their more impressive achievement was in their successful and utter transition to another genre.

Personal Bias:
I enjoyed the countrified version of "Drunk With Power" much more than the version found on "V" is for Vagina.
Random Detail: One of the clips the band played featured cast members from "Mr. Show," the comedy program that lent the band its name.
By the Way: At the end of the show, Keene advised the crowd, "Next time we come back, expect something completely different."

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