Concert Reviews

Tool Night Two: Burly Security, Muscular Music, No Room for Error

Maynard James Keenan of Tool at the Pepsi Center.
Maynard James Keenan of Tool at the Pepsi Center. Aaron Thackeray
“Stop me if you’ve heard this before,” Tool singer Maynard James Keenan said before launching into “Ænema” Wednesday night at the Pepsi Center. “I smell marijuana. It must be Denver.”

It was the most the enigmatic singer spoke all evening.

After Tool's positively searing, ninety-minute career-spanning set — the second of two sold-out shows at the Pepsi Center in support of Fear Inoculum, the band's first album in thirteen years — a twelve-minute countdown was projected behind the stage and on a transparent curtain surrounding the stage. It was a new spin on the tired rock-show encore cliché. The house lights were on; there was no reason for the faithful to beg for the band’s impending return; and a giant gong was carried by roadies to the platform to drummer Danny Carey's left.

As the countdown ended, the six-foot-five Carey — with long blonde hair, a custom Denver Nuggets jersey and baggy blue Colorado Avalanche shorts — emerged and played a series of rolls on the gong.

Not even the Grateful Dead would begin an encore with a drum solo. But Carey walked back to his massive drum kit and worked his way through impressive, athletic feats on trigger pads and dozens of drums. With gigantic china cymbals to his left and right, the legendary drummer, who muscled himself into the progressive-rock canon with the iconic fills on “Sober” in 1993, could barely be seen behind his array of percussion, despite his height. But more than any member of Tool, his presence was heavy in every moment.

Kicked off by Carey’s transporting drum workout that led into “Chocolate Chip Trip,” from Fear Incoculum, Tool’s three-song encore truly felt like another show in itself. On Fear Inoculum, the psychedelic prog of “Chocolate Chip Trip” leads into “7empest,” but on Wednesday night it morphed into the equally ambitious, thirteen-minute “Invincible,” with guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor using their instruments as melodic percussion while Carey used his giant drum kit as a sort of palette and Keenan stalked and sang of “a warrior struggling to remain consequential.”

Of course, the arena-rock group bold enough to begin its encore with a drum solo is also the arena-rock band whose lead singer — famously outspoken, brash and opinionated — spent the entire evening at the back of the stage, creeping atop the platforms to either side of Carey, occasionally slithering onto Carey’s drum riser.

“Danny, are you stoned?” Keenan quipped at one point.

Simply singing — especially lyrics as complex, poetic and meaningful as Keenan’s — along to time signatures and transitions as diverse and challenging as Tool’s is tough enough, but the singer also managed to “dance,” if you can call it that, along to Tool’s dark, pounding progressive metal.

Clad in plaid pants, black boots, a black top and a fresh Mohawk, Keenan looked more ready to front the Exploited or Blanks 77 than the most successful progressive band in the past 25 years, but his eccentric on-stage persona at the Pepsi Center defied logic and expectation. Belying the junkie-punk vibe of his outfit, Keenan crouched like a catcher, pointed like a disco dancer, even bent backwards like a yogi, all while his legendary voice seemed to reach for the rafters where the Avalanche keep their Stanley Cup banners.

Keenan is about as tall standing up as Carey is seated while drumming, but his voice seemed like it could reach the top of Pikes Peak.

As Tool is a band one cannot fully appreciate without studying Keenan’s intricate lyrics, it was a shame that his voice was the lowest instrument in the mix at the Pepsi Center. However, the crowd knew each song by heart anyway, and there was much besides Keenan’s voice to pay attention to — from the curtain that came and went, partially shielding the band for parts of the show, to intense and sometimes gory short films (one starring Tricky), and the entertaining bassist Justin Chancellor.

The grey-haired Chancellor, wearing black pants, a dress shirt and green suspenders, headbanged and amped up the crowd, playing noisy bass solos that brought the music to a boil. While Tool’s eccentric frontman never once walked to the front of the stage except to briefly wave to the crowd and hug his bandmates after the encore, Chancellor played to the feverish audience like a lead singer generally does at a rock show, and to great effect.

Just a few songs into Tool’s initial set, security threw out a guy behind me for beginning to take video with his phone. The burly guards, told by Tool to eject anyone shooting photos or video, had a Judge Dredd feel, aggressively shining pointers at anyone so much as looking at his or her phone, until Keenan authorized recording during "Stinkfist," at the show's volcanic conclusion. Security's seriousness was intimidating, but also complemented prowling tunes like “Pneuma” well.

In the end, Tool’s performance represented the antithesis of most modern rock, most obviously that of jam bands. Though the effect was deep, powerful and liberating, there was zero margin for error and little if any room for improvisation, creating a sense of meaning and intention behind every note and every word.
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Pittsburgh native Adam Perry is a cyclist, drummer and University of Pittsburgh and Naropa University alum. He lives in Boulder and has written for Westword since 2008.
Contact: Adam Perry