Don't let the white kabuki mask and the inverted KFC chicken bucket he wears on his head fool ya - California-bred weirdo Buckethead is hardly a flash-in-the-pan ax hero. Over the past decade or so, the lanky guitarist has funked with Bill Laswell and Bootsy Collins, cavorted in Les Claypool's cartoon universe of sound, and shredded with one of Axl Rose's self-destructive versions of Guns N' Roses. That work as a sideman has plainly helped swell his fan base, but last Friday at the Annex he showed a sold-out audience that he's about more than fleet fingers and supple wrists.
Buckethead's current album is Enter the Chicken, a goofy but carefully wrought concept piece that includes collaborative work with everyone from vocalist/producer Serj Tankian of System of a Down to the gifted Ethiopian pop chanteuse Gigi. But on tour the vocals go away, and the always mute guitar hero leads a furious power trio that showcases his six-string talents as well as his love of Halloween-era horror-movie paraphernalia (exemplified by the friendly severed head that gets in on his act every now and then) and his facility for miming the mechanical movements of robots. With all that aural and visual action up on stage, nobody really objects to the fact that his drummer does all of the talking.
On Friday, the most startling moment of Buckethead's turn on the boards came when he put down his pristine white Gibson and picked up a set of nunchuck fighting sticks for an interlude of martial arts hand jive that would have impressed hardcore Bruce Lee followers. If one of the kids drooling at the edge of the stage had stretched out his arms a micron or two more, a few real amputated limbs surely would have joined the fake severed arm that fills out Buckethead's bag of stage props.
As for the music, no one will ever accuse Buckethead of slacking off in concert. Lots of guitar gods reel off blazing arpeggios and engage in percussive tapping techniques, but very few of them reach the mach I meters that predominated during Buckethead's two 75-minute sets. Plus, when he wasn't using his digits and a yard's worth of effects pedals to outshine the accomplishments of A-list shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen, he was funking up the place with a vengeance and quoting Hendrix with both skill and taste.
An extended, eardrum-busting encore version of "Machine Gun" had every guitar freak, metalhead, coed and flop-dancing Phish fan in the audience screaming for more as Buckethead hunched his shoulders, inclined the impassive kabuki mask toward the multitude for one last look and shuffled off the stage.