Nearly two decades ago, one of the most unlikely supergroups took the stage for their first performance and by the time they finished their set of originals, the jam audience was already asking for more. That request was answered with a single month-long tour over a year later, and with the exception of a single one-off show, the beast was put to rest, but not forgotten.
Since then, the musical world has been waiting for and continuously requesting the return of one of the most interesting aberrations of talent ever formed and this past weekend, the first sighting of the aqueous three-headed creature rose from the depths of their own musical murk at Colorado’s 1st Bank Center.
Oysterhead, composed of the talented King Freak of the bass himself Les Claypool, guitar virtuoso and royalty Trey Anastasio, and the legendary wizard of syncopation Stewart Copeland, unleashed the creative monster on a two-night sold-out crowd just west of Denver.
For the sake of nostalgia, it should also be mentioned that this would be the first performance of the trio in Colorado since that solitary tour in 2001 when the band played back-to-back nights at The Fillmore over the Halloween holiday and saw Anastasio don Fishman’s dress, Copeland paint himself Hulk green reflecting the creature inside as well as the fleck of his drum kit, and, per the usual, Claypool touting a pig-headed mask to round out the dark feel of the music and the All Hallows Eve celebration.
With little to no information, it was anyone’s guess of what the band would bring to the table and speculation ran high if setlists would differ between nights, if audiences would be treated to multiple sets, or if new music would be gifted by the band, especially in light of the recent Instagram post by Copeland, asking “Oysterhead heads” what covers they would want to hear, mentioning such bands as The Doors, Cream, Primus, Phish, The Police, and more.
Around 8:30 pm on Valentine’s day, after months of wondering, answers began to be revealed. The band entered the stage under deep purple light and a prerecorded looping that set the tone for the evening. The crowd welcomed the trio with deafening, raucous applause and with this, the band made quick work of getting down to business. Building off the loop and adding fills and feedback, creating a lengthy intro, the syrupy drone eventually morphed after several minutes into the song “Little Faces”. As this is the opening track of The Grand Pecking Order, the only musical product this conglomerate has produced, some wondered if they might just play the whole album from start to finish. As the tune reached the end of this well-executed rendition, and with a “Tommy the Cat” lyrical tease from Claypool taboot, the band phased into “Mr. Oysterhead”, putting the complete album theory to rest, but reassuring the crowd that what the evening had in store was going to be nothing short of incredible. The band continued to deliver on “Polka Dot Rose”, a segueing “Radon Balloon” / “Grand Pecking Order”, which showcased Anastasio switching it up with a Stratocaster, and a royal version of “Rubberneck Lions”, all of which were displayed with an energy that showed that the group were just as excited to be back together as the audience was to have them.
As the band put the finishing touches on the lengthy and exploratory set-closer, another ruminating question was answered as the men left the stage after six songs and what seemed much longer than an hour of playing, signifying that the evening would hold multiple sets and that there was so much more to come.
Following a 25-minute intermission, the group returned and again were welcomed by the masses who were looking for an earful of oddity and the three amigos were happy to oblige. Claypool reached for the stand-up bass this time and the group moved into a nebulous intro jam building over several minutes before transitioning into the dark tale of a soldier’s return from Vietnam in the tune “Shadow of a Man”. Clocking in at nearly a quarter of an hour, making it the longest song of the second set, the music continued to show no signs of waning or deterrence from the onset of the night and in fact continued to climb to dizzying heights as if these masters of mystifying modalities knew no boundaries and were destroying any limit that got in their way. This dynamic was further confirmed as “Shadow of a Man” transitioned into “Army’s on Ecstasy”, and at its close, the pairing finished out at nearly half of the whole second set’s time.
With nothing short of amazement and talent, the set continued to exceed expectations as the inhabitants of the 1st Bank Center proceeded to get down with a fervor that mirrored the euphoria being dropped from the stage. “Wield the Spade” was the next selection and saw Copeland leave the kit and take center stage to deliver his theatrics and enthusiastic rendering while Anastasio returned to his earliest musical roots and delivered as turbid timekeeper for the thick and muddy number.
Up next was “Birthday Boys” and began with banter and quips between Anastasio and Claypool before beginning the tune, bringing laughter to the arena and reflecting the genuine joy that the two were sharing on stage. The comedy continued as Claypool referenced his latest tour with heavy metal giants, Slayer, and added his own attempt at tackling a stanza of Birthday Boys lyrics via his best Slayer impression. At songs end, Anastasio speculated that Slayer probably would NOT have considered Claypool’s take as “the Slayer version”, to which Les replied it was “probably more the Lighthouse version”, while Anastasio further clarified it was more likely “the Flock of Seagulls version”.
Getting back to the seriousness of it all, the set continued with “Oz is Ever Floating” and the rambunctious, shred fest of a closer “Pseudo Suicide”, leaving the audience spent, grinning, and cheering for more. In some concert situations, the encore seems to be the afterthought, but here the cephalopodan of the surreal continued the festivities with debuting “Voices In My Head”, a tune from The Police, “46 Days” by Phish, and the final unplayed track of The Grand Pecking Order, “The Owner of The World” with its upbeat blues fervor and a “Smoke on the Water” tease, all of which totaled 17 minutes.
At the onset of night two, more questions and speculation arose as to how the nights would differ and what if any new surprises would be pulled from the bag of tricks, especially after the welcome the band received following their hiatus. Some thoughts included the unveiling of a sophomore album or heavier indulgences from each of the member's main staple projects. Either way, it was easy to see arriving at the venue two hours before doors, that there was already a mass gathered awaiting entry in hopes of securing a spot stage-side for what was surely going to be an unforgettable encore performance to the night prior. For many standing in the cold, there was no question whether securing tickets for both nights was overkill, as it was often stated that who knows when this band will return to the road following the handful of announced dates, as it could be another 5 to 14 years, and for anyone who witnessed night one, no one was blaming anyone for the overindulgence. In fact, many who had attended night one were already talking about hitting the California shows to take in as much Oysterhead as possible.
Doors opened at a quarter past seven and excited fans flooded all levels of the 6000+ venue, each with a plan in mind for sightlines, sound, or the best combination of both. The audience demographic included both genders, with an expected tipping towards the male, but not by much. There were patrons from both the Primus and Phish camps and the ages included equal parts from the old and new schools.
By half-past eight, the once vacant room was full and energized as the feeling of the unexpected and anticipation once again filled the air. As anxious calls, whistles, and cheers rang out under the familiar caliginous purple lights, the house music went silent and the crowd came alive, audibly embracing the band as they took the stage to the similar sounds of loops and feedback experienced at the onset of the night before.
This time, the band called on their friend “Mr. Oysterhead” to start the night, coming in at eighteen minutes, making it not only the longest selection of the evening but the weekend as well, showing that the improvisational and tension directed portions on the eve of this performance were certainly going to carry over.
Slot two had Claypool calling out to “Stew-Daddy” to get things started and with a responsive drum roll, the band lit the fire of “Oz is Ever Floating” and made for the skies. As if the audible attitude to this point hadn’t conveyed the content the band and audience had for the music produced thus far, Claypool stepped to the mic to let all within earshot know how the band was feeling about their return.
Spinning a discombobulated story about a debate between his Polish friend Slavimir Meholic and himself about whether the saying is “Happy as a clown” or “Happy as a clam”, Les finally lands at the punchline, stating “we are as happy as f**king clams up here doing our sh*t. Last night we kicked the rust off this son of a b*tch and drove it straight to f**cking Hades! We had a good ol’ time”, a statement that was obviously well received. Claypool continued that although he did appreciate the clown perspective of his polish confidant, “Tonight, it is happy as an oyster!”
With that, “The Grand Pecking Order” began with its staccato march as Anastasio shredded like an unrelenting machine over the foundation set by Claypool and Copeland. Transitioning seamlessly, a lengthy intro jam with pops and flare that contained hues of Clifton Chenier’s and Phish favorite “My Soul” ended into the second-longest piece of the weekend “Rubberneck Lions”, timing out at seventeen minutes of ridiculousness.
To close out the set, the band brought out another dark and eerie rendition of “Shadow of a Man”, its extended opening filled with the gurgles and discord of the musical nether regions that made one feel as though impending doom were right around the corner, and with that, the accompanying fright and excitement of the unknown in the moment to come. The visual dynamic of seeing Anastasio wielding The Matterhorn only contributed to the power and unsettling feeling of the tune. As the final drones of the hollow wasteland faded into the rear-view mirror and it was anyone’s guess what would be the final selection, the band rolled out Cream’s “White Room”, with Les taking lead vocals. Although the song seemed short, there was plenty of content, as Copeland and Claypool laid down the collective rumbling and footing and Anastasio fired away over the top, making great on the good names of their predecessors Clapton, Bruce, and Baker that originally made the song an instant and powerful classic.
Again, taking a page from Night one, the band paused for an abbreviated intermission, and returned under the thirty-minute mark, opening the second set with another acoustic performance of “Birthday Boys”, this time focused on the song’s meaning: a fabled tale of an adventurous night in Las Vegas during the year 2000 where two friends, Claypool and Anastasio, shared more than just cake and presents in celebrating their close-set birthdays, September 28th and 29th, respectively. The seemingly light-hearted nature and structure of the song doesn’t seem to reflect the level of debauchery experienced on this night of infamy, which even now still remains, albeit less, shrouded in mystery.
The jam essence that was prevalent in set one continued to endow set two and following the acoustic tale, the band resumed where they had left off with another hard-driving version of “Little Faces”, which saw the band taking their time to accent, slow, and speed their way through the tune, bringing psychedelic remnants to the table while remaining vigilant to the hard edge.
With hardly a pause, the band continued on with “Polka Dot Rose” and again reflected that the band was focused on the stretch of the tune rather than getting through the lyrics and the end. The improvisation was gritty, and the lyrical portion reached frenetic anxiety in the end, as Claypool and Anastasio called out “Keep on raging!” over and over again, driving the house into a reeling tizzy of intoxication.
“Wield The Spade” afforded Copeland to once again come center stage and deliver on this tune that was seemingly crafted for his lengthy mass, as he utilized outstretched arms and long face to accentuate the call to arms with conviction and power, appearing as if to speak specifically to everyone in attendance all the while making eye contact with as many as possible. Diving into the bizarre instrumental at the close of the tune, flickerings of light shone from the dark depths as the band transitioned without pause into “Radon Balloon”. Again, Anastasio switched over to the Stratocaster and Claypool left the bass duties, making his way Stew-side to assist on the ancillary percussion setup that lined the backside of Copeland’s kit. From there, Stewart and Les looked on and supported Trey in time as he delivered the emotional and soft melody and lyric at center stage. From here, the band transfigured once again, jumping from the aerial number back to the ground and took off on a strong pairing of “Army’s on Ecstasy” into “Owner of the World” to close out the set.
For the second night in a row, the encore slot received three heaters and got the special treatment with the debuts of full versions of Primus’ “Those Damn Blue-Collar Tweekers” and Phish’s “First Tube”, both of which were served up and bathed in Oysterhead sauce, with the final tune of the night being the last unplayed song from the studio album: another charged version of “Pseudo Suicide”.
The big takeaway from the weekend was that the band sounds well-rehearsed, energized, and has taken their return seriously. They appear to be as excited and overflowing with fun as the audience and seem to have a stronger focus on the jam if you will, allowing for longer builds and lengthier versions from their classic album.
The lights and the sound for the weekend were dialed in from the first notes to the end and again reflected that every point of the band’s return had been considered and addressed prior to taking the stage. From all outlooks, there was nary a bad seat in the house and circulating through the arena, eye and ear candy were easily visible being enjoyed by all.
The oozing goo that is the concoction of these three consciousnesses is certainly an acquired taste, but anyone who attended this weekend’s festivities couldn’t argue with the fact that what was pulled off was unstable and exciting and left anyone heading home pondering buying tickets for the next stop, even if they played all the same songs over again.