Show Review: Tool @ Erwin Center 1/21

It’s been said, when summer turns to winter in Austin, we put away our white T-shirts and get out our black ones. So it was appropriate for TOOL to come to the Frank Erwin Center in the month of January. Nobody had to change clothes they just had to show up. And show up they did. Thousands of black shirts and hoodies filled Austins nostalgic Drum, with the hopes of experiencing a “Great and Powerful” live performance. Hit the jump for more.

TOOL originated in 1990 at the height of the grunge movement as mainstream rock audiences were discovering the joys of body slamming, jumping, stage diving and brawling that, thru the 70s and 80s, had been reserved for only hardcore punk fans. Yet for all the subsequent genres of rock that resulted from this transformative era, alt-rock, alt metal, prog rock, prog metal, nu metal, industrial rock, stoner metal, indie rock, experimental rock, and art rock; the music and phenomenon that is TOOL has generally defied definitive definition. While many 90s bands cajoled crowds with pop punk lyrics or break-your-face attitude, instigated and engaged in spectator antics, and moshed and crowd surfed to complement the raucous silliness of the musical content, TOOL actively discouraged audience misbehavior demanding a more philosophical and spiritual investment from their listeners. The meaning of the bands name has been given as a tool for “Lachrymology“, the study of crying. Even by todays standards is… that is… enlightened. In the Batwitdaba, diggy, diggy, diggy rock scene of the 1990s, TOOL was highly unusual.

Defining the artistic contributions of each of TOOL’s members is not so challenging, however. Each is a distinguished musician with a distinctive style worthy of in depth cover stories in acclaimed mags and publications that highlight the crme de la crme of rock and roll royalty. Danny Carey is particularly revered as a drummer who has mastered the art of 4-way coordination and who, at 6.5 inches tall, is a formidable presence. Justin Chancellor replaced the original bass player in 1994, and after auditioning, was hired for his willingness to try absolutely anything and not settle for commonplace. Maynard is considered a premier heavy metal vocalist, where pitch perfect singing isn’t the only requirement, but the ability to growl, scream, spit, and croon is as important. There are numbers of sources that detail the weirdness of Maynard Keenan, his disdain for his fans, and the oddities of his personality. If he were an actor, he’d be no affable Tom Hanks type. Maynard would certainly favor a Daniel Day Lewis or a Marlon Brando, shunning accolades and acclaim along with the limelight. He is eccentric and moody. Adam Jones is responsible for the unique visual graphics that accompany most of Tools CDs, videos and live performances. He was at one time a Hollywood make-up artist, set designer and graphics artist. Yet in his childhood, he was introduced to the violin and upright bass, and by combining his talents, Jones became TOOL’s lead guitarist and creator of the cryptic and sinister aesthetic of androgynous space alien figures and colorless corpses that is the TOOL brand. All of these guys form a relatively nerdy band. Together, they seemingly practice musical wizardry producing long complex songs on conceptual albums requiring full immersion and contemplative solitude. Changing time signatures during a song is usual, changing those tempos every other measure is typical. This band exists on the periphery of industry norms. Their style is impractical, unpredictable, ineffable and visionary. Their offering is introspective, deep and difficult music that one could easily imagine their zealous fans playing backwards in search of hidden lyrics, or dubbing over a beloved children’s movie classic to make it uncannily creepy.

The definition of a TOOL fan is well documented. They are considered, stereotypically, moody and broody folk who wear shabby clothes. They are regarded as obsessed weirdos with arrogant attitudes. They are often criticized for believing that listening to TOOL puts them on a higher intellectual and musical plateau. They have all the popularity and acceptance of a sommelier in a beer garden. (Maynard Keenen owns a vineyard and a wine label, btw.) The band is often referred to as the thinking mans band, which was recently validated when “Who is TOOL?” was the answer in the Jeopardy’s Greatest of All Time tournament. For all the trouble it is to describe TOOL’s music, describing their fans as unwashed know-it-alls is urban legend.

They are a loyal bunch, the fans. While most bands in the last quarter of a century have evolved (or succumbed) to delivering their music to fans via the internet, until August 2019, to listen to a TOOL album one had to actually have it delivered in the mail! There was no Pandora or Spotify search that would enable a listen to any of their songs. There were no Itunes or MP3s to download. Before this past summer, to listen to a TOOL song one had to do it the old fashioned way by buying the whole album and holding it in your hand. But weeks before the much hyped and anticipated release of the band’s first album in 13 years, they made their full catalog available online. This move stimulated a rush to online sales of past records, and helped to boost enthusiasm for the debut of Fear Inoculum. Finally, the obstacles to discovering TOOL as a new fan are being removed. There is a brand new album, and a fresh new tour.

So here we are.

The night began with about 1/3 of the ticket holders in their seats. It is not unusual for folks to skip the opening act. Doors at 6:30 in Austin’s evening traffic is almost impossible, but fortunately, we didn’t have to change clothes, right? So for the early arrivals, Arthur and Punisher, a one-man-band, set a suspenseful and impending tone. With self made electronic instruments and algorithms this guy creates a virtual monster that shook our adjustable aluminum bleachers with blasts of sound and troll like screams through some sort of voice transporter. When it stopped at one point one guy close by yelled out amazed and amused, “WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK WAS THAT??!” On the whole it was a good match for the band that was to follow and it effectively prepared the room, leaving everyone excited and expectant.

The stage change from warm up to main act was quick and seamless, considering the amount of lights and LED screens, projectors and mechanics that accompany a live TOOL performance. The crew seemed casual and efficient. As they readied the stage, a semicircle of hundreds of long, unlit, vertically hung LED light strands moved like a curtain closing in front of, and surrounding the stage.

The show opened with the single and repetitive triangle-like ding that begins the title track on the new album Fear Inoculum. The stage bursts into light, the hanging LED curtain in front of the stage and the screens behind it, with moving waves of red lava-like light and showering abstract video of astrological looking big bangs. After the first song Maynard shouted, “Supposedly Austin!” to which the crowd gave a fairly light roar and cheer. Seemingly unimpressed with the reaction, he then said, “Work on it”, and the band broke into “Aenima”.

The band played at least 2 or 3 songs behind this mass of light and movement and though they could be seen thru the strands, the result was a glowing stage of sound, light and movement. The creation was a huge presence that demanded reverence and awe and totally distracted us from the fact that it was really just 4 men behind a curtain. Eventually the LED curtain parted and revealed for the rest of the concert, a glimpse of a band creating something bigger than the sum of their individual parts. In true Maynard fashion, the spotlight never once hit him, instead the spotlight stayed atop Justin Chancellor, unconventionally making him the star of the show. The best view of Maynard came when he turned sideways to the massive and frenzied light show on the back screen of the stage showing a spikey silhouette of a Mohawk attached to his bald head. Googling Mohawk styles it falls under the shopping category of the Lady Gaga Mohawk, for some reason, for any individual wanting to go as Maynard James Keenan to their next Halloween party. (You’re welcome.) Adam Jones stood most of the night down stage opposite of Justin Chancellor. Though much of the sound that is TOOL comes from his guitar, Jones plays the role of a shy, focused musician and rarely smiles or breaks the fourth wall while playing. When the band finished the set with “Forty-Six and 2” it was clear that a bass player can steal a show. The audience was often uncharacteristically subdued for a fan base that dates back to the 90s. One wonders if it is the result of maturity or because the average TOOL fan, by definition, is a little more self-conscious than most. But for this final song of the set, the fans gave the kudos. As soon as the band left the stage a huge digital timer was projected on the back screen, 15:00 began a count-down to the encore. This band has figured out that to leave a paying audience in suspense for 5 or 10 minutes, screaming and woo-whooing for more, is a little humiliating.

Yet the result of this timed intermission was interesting. Like the Passing of the Peace in a church service, everyone turned to their neighbor and chatted and bonded. Being that some equate TOOL’s music to a religious experience, this 15 minute break was a moment of unity for like-minded worshippers.

After the timed break the lights dimmed again and the show resumed with Danny Carey playing a large gong with drum sticks. Occasionally he would pick up a fat fuzzy mallet and hit the gong, creating a variety of sounds from the one instrument. Eventually he sat down and played the drum solo known as “Chocolate Chip Trip”. To describe this song, one must imagine a bag of popcorn being heated in the microwave. At first there is maybe one pop here, and another random pop there, but before its over, everything blows up into a crescendo of rapid fire explosions of heat and steam that could easily burn one if not careful.

The night ended with a favorite, “Stinkfist”. Again the crowd of somewhat restrained fans sang and reveled in the last moments before their musical wizards hopped into their hot air balloon to sail off into the distance. By the songs end, Maynard had disappeared, leaving the other 3 to take the bows. Even this much limelight was too much for him. Jones and the others hugged a bit, in a congratulatory fashion, and Carey threw his sticks into the crowd while Justin gladly absorbed the fans adoration with smiles and waves. The tune that serenaded us out was Abba’s “Dancing Queen”.

As we filed out of the round Erwin center we passed photographs of past concerts. There were pictures of great bands like Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Rush that have all performed in this vintage venue. And the TOOL fans looked satisfied. Surely many of them felt vindicated. For years they have been dismissed as delusional dip-shits for their perception of TOOL as a great and powerful band and their inability to adequately explain why. Tonight proved it to the rest of us. We just had to find out for ourselves. Now that TOOL’s past catalog is finally available for streaming and downloading, a new album is for sale, and tour is underway, many more will have a chance to find out as well.

For all the labels and genres of rock music that came out of the 1990s, it’s still oddly difficult to accurately define TOOL and why they have such a strong and lasting impact on their fans. How does one describe a collaboration of 4 musicians that defies what we consider normal in the music industry? Fortunately for anyone interested, it just got easier. As of 3 weeks ago, they can be described simply as, the band with the top selling rock album of 2019.

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