Night of the Living Buckethead
Concert review by Randy Ray
Buckethead Orpheum Theater, Flagstaff, Arizona. November 19th 2005.
Back in July at the 10,000 Lakes Festival, Buckethead closed down the Saturday night Field Stage with a bizarre and mind-bending display of guitar sorcery. Since then, Bucketland has been VERY active as the KFC-crowned seven-foot guitar giant has released a new album, Enter the Chicken — a clever take on one of his numerous pop culture heroes — and a recent platter from Bucketland called Inbred Mountain, which features the string-bending behemoth on his famous white guitar while 24th Century riffs bleed from amps in accompaniment to multi-tracked guitar, bass, drum, and sound effects. Co-produced by current Bucket bass guitarist and occasional vocalist Del Rey Brewer, I bought it during the set break, slipped it into my car's CD player after the show, and heard how portions of the gig welded Buckethead vs. the Tape Effect Monster to the floor.
The Orpheum Theater looks like an old converted film house that had its first ten rows ripped out to accommodate a random spur-of-the-moment mosh pit. The atmosphere was occasionally loose and humorous but at all times filled with the Wagnerian tension that rips throughout all of Buckethead's music. The man appears to hide behind an aura of the gimmicky cloak of Trickster God. As a matter of fact, I once even wrote off Buckethead as a musician who may not be reaching the peak of his abilities due to his obsessive link to Disneyland-type histrionics. The comments were poorly chosen and written at a time of less than peak energy, so I was stunned when my sharp editor, pitched another Bucket gig my way. I wasn't thinking of mending ways, but rather looking at a rare opportunity to retrace my literary steps with fresh eyes and ears — a random body part comparison that Buckethead would appreciate. Plus, how could I resist seeing the ultra guitar master in the state where there are more Hell's Angels per capita than any other in the country? There's a reason speed-metal monsters like Slipknot recorded their live albums in Arizona. Kudos to the state's hardcore outsider image.
Well, the months have passed, a wee smidgen of jam burnout has been wiped away by wisdom which has finally floated my way, and as I walked through the oddly beautiful mixture of old 19th Century train town and 21st Century hipster on the fringe tapestry of Flagstaff, I decided to open my mind and just listen to the music speak its own tongue. In other words, Buckethead was in charge — so be it. As night fell, Flagstaff got a heck of a lot chillier (nothin' Arctic, ya understand), and the vibe around the side streets paralleling and bisecting the Orpheum resembled a quiet, horrific setting right out of some Jason Meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Movie Marathon. The crowd resembled this mysterious imagery as I got my whiskey double shot at the bar and moved inside for a little bit of the Buckethead chicken grease and killer death metal crunch riffery.
Buckethead's power trio walked onto the stage at 10:20, and that was the last normal act of the night. Mr. KFC plugged in and shot my head backwards after he peeled off a huge wah-wah note from some quadrant of space next to Jupiter that had me grinning from ear to ear. Tossed back the rest of the whiskey, and everything after that was so surreal and over-the-top but played with such a high level of amazing chops that I immediately wrote down in my rumpled coffee & liquor-stained notebook that "Buckethead needs his own audience – not the mixed bag of hippies, wooks, hipsters, and college kids on the lam found at festivals. Long Live Bucketheadland! Buy a ticket and enjoy the ride."
A tall dude in matching Bucket headgear got a handshake and an action figure from the OG Buckethead, which wiped out the notion that the man is actually an alien mass murderer and devoid of any sort of social grace. I wonder if Eric Clapton ever pulled a Batman out of his bag of tricks for a devoted audience member? Perhaps, not. "Welcome" crashed into "F#" with Bucket's mega power leads descending into extremely sweet blues chords. Touching down in the traditional for merely a moment, Buckethead wasted little time as he began arching those same blues notes, modulating and accelerating them at a perfect pitch, effortlessly selected as if Jimi Hendrix had slipped on a mask for an evening from yesterday. This simply furthered my theory that when the mind is clear and thinking straight, our greatest unknown guitarist hails from SoCal, baby, and he won't pander to what you want to hear or how you need to hear it. No way. Never that easy. That's the lesson Buckethead taught me. Sometimes, if you listen closely enough, he communicates directly to you, circling back on emotions that other guitarists just don't have the skill to attain, piercing through the bullshit to play that note that lifts you into space.
"Cannibal" followed, and the pure joy of macabre entertainment played out over a ricochet rotating riff as Bucket and the trio slammed effortlessly through chords and leads that suggested gothic skyscrapers but destroyed anything in its path. Pinchface on drums (Chicago Style) and occasional vocals offered the rest of the night's wicked theatrical madness. "Stick Pit" is a pleasant little graveyard dirge that spooked the hell out of the ones in the seats but got the mosh pit to move even closer to the stage to see if maybe, just maybe... axes? machetes? dismemberment? The piece was nice, sweet, well-paced, and a long and dreamy atmosphere for a Saturday night at the twin set creature feature at the Orpheum. Pinchface did his Sling Blade number on "Whitewash" and that got laughs and blank astonished stares. Was he for real? Eyes bulged, necks arched. The meek wept. Did it matter? Wasn't that Sling Blade dude in the film a stone cold killer? The mosh pit moved closer — not worrying about anything but missing the next bloody scene.
"Karl" featured the style of playing that appears on Inbred Mountain: Bucket on blazing solo guitar with a taped drum accompaniment. This worked very well, and the guitarist played up the theatrics by using his extremely long arms to start and stop the tape. Buckethead never just walks across a stage or gestures in any sort of subtle fashion. Hell no! The man looks like he's studied Russian Theatre from the early 20th Century with a huge helping of late 20th Century robotics and Bruce Lee martial art pyrotechnics. Think Yngwie Malmsteen and Eddie Van Halen in a blender with Godzilla and Michael Jackson, and you may have an idea of how advanced this cat is when he passes his baseball glove-sized hands over the white fretboard - fast, loud, and ZERO notes are either unnecessary or missed. During "Jowls," I literally tried not to blink because my feeble brain was attempting to comprehend how his fingers could produce power crunch chords that perfectly segued into lightning runs before Pinchface got up from his drum kit and ran around the stage (lest we were bored, ya understand).
The rest of the set featured Buckethead on martial art props, doing the robot dance, an "1812 Orchestra" theme tease that melted into a "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" strut which made me forget that it's actually called, I think, the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The All-American Family favorite "Gory Head Stump" ended the set as the band played a monster "Shape I'm In" speed riff and Buckethead and the trio walked off the stage. My jaw was on the floor as the lights went up, and I walked back to the bar to check my notes, ears, and brain cells and pondered a cell call to Kirk Hammett, Metallica guitarist. "Do you know what planet Bucket is from? NO ONE plays this fast and this good."
Buckethead came out solo to play acoustic guitar, and if the man was ever thought of as just another electric gunslinger, this dispelled that notion QUICK. After an absolutely sublime solo passage, the band returned, and beautiful Bucket continued as the acoustic vibe settled just a little bit longer over our buzzed heads. The electric band returned with "Slaw" and "Frozen Brains" as Bucket whipped out a talking chicken, karate sticks, and big red scissors that didn't mean a damn thing but it was hilarious to watch and the music somehow matched his every move.
Special effects on guitar from Buckethead and heavy crunch rock from the band started to peel the paint from the walls and provoke many to hit the dance floor HARD. The mosh pit waited to pounce as tension grew in the theatre. If there wasn't going to be blood from the stage, well then, some local yard ape would supply said batch from the crowd. I counted a 2005 record of at least ten rowdies escorted out of the premises with a welcome shove and a boot.
Actually, I felt more comfortable at this show than at any of my other 50+ 2005 gigs. Why? There is something about Buckethead and his gang of mad ruffians pushing the decibels with majestic strands of horror film soundtrack music that goes down really well in an old and dark theatre. The drummer entered the melee and did a karaoke version of Earth Wind & Fire's "September Song," and in case we forgot that things could get even more bizarre, Bucket returned from offstage with a weird giant hand, did a robot dance, and passed out loads of toys and weird shit from a big plastic bucket that looked like a pickle jar from my old cooking days. The tape effects started, and some Japanese (?) guy on the tape mixed with bass 'n' drum accompaniment raced Bucket on the guitar as "Slunk" from Inbred Mountain peeled eyelids back and got a few more mosh pit citizens tossed out of the theatre. Extremely fast Slipknot death metal followed on the appropriately titled "Speed Metal," which led into gobs more of the sonic fretboard magic that are Bucket's hands as it did gymnastic backflips with board-tapping from the future and a bit of the Old World — a gentle tease of... wait for it... Disneyland's "It's A Small World." Fucking brilliant.
Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" ended the set, and I laughed hard when Buckethead just raced right into Randy Rhodes's solo after a brief mention of the central theme. This wasn't a classic rock song covered by some drunk bar band - Buckethead was ripping the song to shreds and reassembling the elements in his own image, which is a perfect description of the man's incredible musical prowess. The encores featured solo guitar with Bucket throwing out numerous Star Wars teases from the "Main Theme" to the "Imperial March," a return of the full band with Brewer on vocals, and a final nod towards the man's only multi-dimensional peer: Hendrix. As Woodstock 1969 loomed overhead in some parallel universe Buckethead hit a delay loop and hammered home the final nail in my review with a monumental thrust on his legendary white guitar from some netherworld, eventually walking offstage into the shadowy and cool Northern Arizona Fall eve.