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Les is more than enough

What to make of Les Claypool after all these years?

The mastermind behind Primus and countless side projects — some equal to Primus, some ... not so much — has enjoyed a career that can only be described as eclectic.

I discovered Primus in 1993. "Discovered" might not be the correct term; it was more like Primus was foisted upon me one afternoon in my friend Dave's garage after school.

Dave's garage. We all venerate such a place in our youth. It was the place where you whiled away countless teenage hours debating topics of global importance such as who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude Van Damme (Lee, of course) or who was the better metal band, Metallica or Megadeth (Metallica, but just barely).

Dave's garage was moldy and dark, more of a cave than something modern man used to store cars and garden tools. It reeked of ancient Salisbury steak frozen dinners and soured Red Dog beer that had soaked into the shag carpet. More than once I had fallen asleep on that floor, only to awake with my face melded to the ground like some bug caught in a sticky trap.

A Led Zeppelin black-light poster hung crooked on the wall along with nudie photo spreads so delicately clipped from choice publications such as Hustler and Swank.

I was holed up in that very garage, no doubt buried in a game of Tecmo Super Bowl, when I first heard Primus. It seemed as fitting at the time as it does now.

Primus was the perfect bridge band that covered the gap between '90s alternative and late '80s metal. I dug both sounds, but hung with dudes who liked one and hated the other.

The album was "Pork Soda," Primus' first major-label recording and still its largest seller to date. For a brief couple of months in 1993 — probably the last year that MTV actually dedicated more than 40 percent of its airtime to playing music videos — Primus was on regular rotation with the single "My Name is Mud."

Claypool is Primus' lead singer and primary songwriter, but these accomplishments are nearly beside the point. Claypool plays bass.

Saying Les Claypool plays bass is like saying Peyton Manning throws a ball.

Claypool dominates a bass. He does things with it that few in rock 'n' roll history have glimpsed. During a single Primus song, Claypool can shift between jazz, mid-'70s funk and Black Sabbath while alternating between slap and strumming techniques and back again.

(Having said all that, he's certainly not the best rock bassist of all time. That would be The Who's John Entwistle. I'm open to arguments for Geddy Lee, Flea, Chris Squire, Larry Graham, et al, but you will be hard-pressed to convince me one could take Entwistle's mantle. God rest his soul.)

"Pork Soda" landed Primus on the Woodstock II stage, where the band stole the show amid mud-slinging chaos and scored Claypool some iconic jobs such as writing and performing the theme to "South Park."

After alternative crashed and burned in the late '90s, Claypool settled into cult status. He now enjoys a steady — and ferociously loyal — fan base that includes metal heads, prog rock geeks and frat boys.

Claypool's spin-off acts are interesting for the unique way they build from the Primus template. Colonel Les Claypool's Fearless Flying Frog Brigade features a challenging, experimental style reminiscent of Mike Patton's brilliant Mr. Bungle, but the songs build around familiar Primus obsessions of drug burnouts, psychopaths and carnival freaks.

His stint with the supergroup Oysterhead, in which he teamed up with Phish's Trey Anastasio and Police drummer Stewart Copleand, drew raves and hate in equal measure. Personally, I dig it, but it suffers a bit from supergroupitis. Each rock wizard gets his stage, but it's not enough from any of them to coalesce into something tangible.

It would be going far too far to suggest Claypool is this generation's Frank Zappa, but the varying styles and the embracing of dense experimentalism is there in Claypool's various pursuits.

Also, he is one of rock's few true storytellers. His music is populated with fringe characters to be sure, but he uses narrative to great effect. The eponymous lead in "Jerry was a Race Car Driver" is described as a stoic backwoods everyman who "never did win no checkered flag, but he never did come in last." The song's humor is tempered with the final lines that suggest Jerry died after crashing his beloved race car into a tree after he imbibed too much Campari.

If you haven't seen Claypool live, now's your chance.

Check out Primus at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 21 at the Lithia Motors Amphitheater in Central Point. Tickets are $39 and were still available last time I checked.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.