As the lights fell at the Orpheum Theatre, a giddy audience eyed the bass, guitar and drums on the stage, the familiar symbols of rock music. But the first movements came from something far less common to rock shows: two giant, inflatable astronauts. Faces sparked to life in each and looked around curiously. Then three silhouettes appeared, and readied their instruments. The astronauts were ready, and Primus had arrived.
So began Thursday night's performance by the alternative rockers, who are touring to support Green Naugahyde, their first release in 11 years. The San Francisco band, which formed in 1984, had taken a break, believing they had hit a creative wall, and that some time apart would help renew the trio's passion.
The show centered on front man Les Claypool's aggressive bass riffs, backed by frantic guitar lines and rapid drums. Claypool switched between bass guitars and an upright electric bass, unleashing first relentless solos that roared and squealed, then otherworldly chirps and thumps.
Primus gave the audience their money's worth. The band played for nearly three hours without an opening act, and devoted the second half entirely to the new album. The lengthy performance surely was a treat for longtime fans. Some audience members showed their delight by shouting the band's ironic slogan, "Primus sucks!"
For more casual listeners, however, the extended jams may have made the material overwhelming and difficult to grasp. In the first half of the show, Primus showed little variety in tempo or musical texture. As the band strung together forceful songs like "Eleven," "Ms. Blaileen" and "Over the Electric Grapevine," the set became a wall of sound that begged to be broken up by something gentler.
Amid the onslaught, Claypool remained collected. Several times he paused to explain an upcoming song and confide that he thought the Madison crowd an "exceptional group of individuals."
The music perfectly complemented the video footage that accompanied each song. Synchronized to the beat and highly erratic, the old films were bizarre. One showed a man in a frightening mask running out from a dark hallway. In another, a family opened Christmas gifts as the band played "Jilly's On Smack," about a drug-addicted character who will not make it back for the holidays.
At intermission there were "Popeye" clips, which drew cheers when the cartoon sailor swallowed his spinach and took the beating back to his rival Bluto.