Saturday night, tens of thousands of people filled San Bernardino’s Glen Helen Amphitheater to hear Tool play a song about California sinking into the sea. While the band hasn’t released a note of new music in 11 years, their audience has only snowballed, and the group used a date on their current tour to play their largest non-festival headlining show ever. For their part, they delivered a whopping 15-song set – their longest of the tour.
This victory lunge also meant a long parade of high-profile alterna-metal opening acts that played from the broiling afternoon to just around sundown. These bands, like Tool, found unlikely success in the unlikely Nineties performing headbanger fare with varying degrees of uncompromising strangeness.
The Melvins played a cubist metal version of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with disorienting held notes. Screeching and jabbering and crooning vocalist Mike Patton of Fantômas performed an ADD ballet cycling between two vocal mics before playing a demented version of Henry Mancini’s music to 1963 film Charade.
Clutch’s Neil Fallon strutted like a stoner-rock R&B singer and smacked a cowbell for “D.C. Sound Attack!,” a hybrid of his band’s sludge-blooze and the percussive clatter of Washington D.C. go-go music. Primus tweaked their funky art-metal with the cosmic Floydisms and Deadisms of leader Les Claypool’s late-career dive into the jam band scene. You could argue they played it the safest by sticking to the hits, but those hits are about a pet beaver and a baseball bat murder.
Whether due to the insular feel of a spotlight shunning band or the muso complexities of their prog-metal, the four members of Tool do not strut around the stage like U2 or the Stones. Singer Maynard James Keenan actually performs in the back by Danny Carey’s drums, spending the entire show as a shadow: His silhouette throughout the night was part insect, part combat training video, part Weeble and part organizer with a megaphone.
Tool’s visuals had to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and, luckily, they only get better as the band’s popularity catches up to their song durations. Blue lights shot into the night sky for “The Grudge,” lasers scattered into chaos for “Ænema,” kaleidoscopic animations throbbed in time to the screams and car alarm guitar of “Third Eye.”
The art of Alex Grey, which examines the physical and metaphysical, was blown up on screens that must have been 25 or 30 feet high. The most ambitious day of music from one of arena rock’s most ambitious bands was not above smoke and confetti either.
And, musically, the band provided plenty of outsized moments to match the outsized visuals: The riff to “Jambi” was crushing, they burned through a version of “Third Eye” (more than 13 minutes in recorded form), and Carey even got a three-minute drum solo which went from techno-fried 7/8 to nimble tumble.
“Forty-Six & 2”