A Perfect Circle took the stage at the sold-out Avalon Monday night in Los Angeles for the first of a three-night run on their West coast mini-tour. Coming off a six-year hiatus, the band is revisiting all their recorded material in a five-city, 14-date tour that showcases performances of all three of the band’s albums and previous live staples on consecutive nights in Tempe, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
APC’s first album, Mer De Noms, was the focus of last night’s set, and I infiltrated the general-admission floor with skyrocketing hopes. This isn’t just another band for Antiquiet’s coverage archives, you see. A Perfect Circle is what kicked off our (Skwerl’s & mine) partnership back in 1999, when I was a kid stumbling into the band’s second-ever show – before fully formed lyrics, before the Y2K bug – and Skwerl was a Tool fan in Philly starting a fan site for a side-project of Maynard James Keenan that nobody knew about… yet. My reviews of their early shows were trial-by-fire lessons in Rock journalism, and the band was my very first interview, as well as the initial medium over which a brotherhood would form. So by several different perspectives, APC’s return to the stage is a powerfully symbolic one to us here at Antiquiet. We weren’t going to miss it.
The black-clad masses shuffled in and found their spots to the sound of ABBA’s Dancing Queen (I’m not kidding), and a sense of surrealism began to set in as the lights went down and the silk stage backdrop – adorned with geometric graphs and rune symbols from the liner notes of Mer De Noms – was illuminated. The performance was a slow-building atmosphere, due in no small part to 3/5 of the band being quarantined to individual platforms onstage. Vocalist Maynard Keenan was perched on a platform in the left rear corner of the stage, facing sideways towards guitarist James Iha and drummer Josh Freese, each of whom were on their own riser. Lead guitarist/songwriter Billy Howerdel was given the lion’s share of workspace, an understandable concession given that these are primarily his songs.
New addition Matt McJunkins’ bass levels were all over the place, leaping high in the mix at seemingly random moments for a strangely unpredictable low-end sensation. If we witness any variation to the recorded material on this tour, it will be through Freese and McJunkins. While the rest of the performances are mostly note-for-note recreations of the record (aside from the supercharged album closer Over) Josh and Matt are afforded liberties in the rhythm section, adding flurries of fills and new note progressions to the existing template the other three members provide. McJunkins also holds steady ground on backup vocals, sharing duties with Howerdel and occasionally Iha.
After an incinerating opening of The Hollow, Keenan completely lost his way in the third verse of Magdalena, but caught the live wire in time for the song’s pounding climax. During Judith, a hint of the old Maynard troll-stomp emerged, self-conscious detachment finally, briefly, giving way to the energy of the moment. His vocals diminished at the end, however, something that we’d see plenty more of throughout the set; at the most powerful moment of the song, the final note in the line “He did it all for you…” wasn’t held and prolonged as it had been on record and all prior tours, but rather went out with nearly a whimper, followed by repeated “ooooh” calls. See for yourself:
Keenan has most evidently downgraded his devotion to vocal upkeep in recent months. While generally hitting all the mid-range notes, the lack of nuance or high-reaching effort in his delivery – one of the major selling points for Mer De Noms‘ delicate beauty – was painfully evident. It’s entirely forgivable that he sang a full octave lower on some of the more strenuous vocal parts – it has been a decade since the material was recorded, after all – but outright skipping entire sections of songs, including a portion of Sleeping Beauty and the typically-soaring delivery of the word “heal” in Breña‘s “opening to heal” line, is just corner-cutting. It’s a cold wave of disappointment, given that Keenan has long been regarded as one of the most disciplined and phenomenally talented vocalists in the history of Rock. He is and always was a chief selling point of this project for most, and a lackluster effort is not going to go unnoticed – particularly when the enthusiasm on both sides of the barricade is at a fever-pitch (tickets for the three-night run sold out in one second).
One of the more cohesively powerful moments of the night came from the Danny Lohner tribute jam Renholdër, in which Howerdel let loose through the melancholy haze of keys, cymbal rides and circular fingerpicking. It was followed by Thinking Of You, a slippery ode to masturbation that once served as the carnal high point for A Perfect Circle shows. In earlier days, Maynard would often turn his back to the crowd with his hand down his pants, simulating the chicken-choke while convulsing and contorting to the carnal sounds of the song. His involvement was again subdued, opting instead for the stand-and-deliver method, with an uncommitted presentation of the pulsing third-act title-mantra.
The title subject in Breña has apparently been replaced by Rayleigh or something similar, but that didn’t stop the track’s delicate heart from beating beautifully in live execution. After cutting even more vocal corners in an otherwise past-channeling rendition of 3 Libras, Maynard told us that James Iha would like to tell us some jokes. He clearly didn’t, but was a good sport (as he was in the early 2000s) and laid down a few painfully & intentionally unfunny jokes:
Q: What’s the most popular wine on Thanksgiving?
A: “I don’t wanna eat my brussel sprouts!”
Q: What can you wear that never goes out of style?
A: A smile
Q: Where does a penguin keep his money?
A: A snow bank
With that, Iha thanked the crowd, told us (in a very convincing stand-up comedian voice) how much he loves the band and us, and proceeded to do a Sexual Chocolate-style mic drop.
The Avalon didn’t get the honor of witnessing Diary Of A Lovesong, the live-mix cover of The Cure’s Lovesong and Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary Of A Madman, as Arizona had on the first string of shows last week, likely due to the vocal demands the song presents. Keenan clearly could not have pulled the song off with enough power to give it justice, so perhaps it’s best that it was left off the setlist.
What we did get, however, was Troy Van Leeuwen, original rhythm guitarist and current axeman for Queens Of The Stone Age, who joined the band for a searing rendition of David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes. For just a moment as the song took flight, a sense of reconnection to the past grew powerfully potent in the room. A Perfect Circle has undergone a series of lineup changes over the years, but the original sonic chemistry between Billy, Maynard and Troy was a chief characteristic of the band’s early incarnation, and seeing its brief return was like a familiar and long-missed embrace of pure Rock passion.
Strangely, APC closed the night with the eMotive track Imagine, which we’ll undoubtedly see at Tuesday’s full-album show. The creeping, downtempo cover of the Lennon classic was a strange low note to leave the crowd on, and most were bewildered when the lights went up and the PA started playing an old vaudevillian instrumental track with Mel Gibson’s infamous voicemail rants peppered over (“You should just smiiiiiiile and blow me!”).
An energizing, if slightly underwhelming, beginning to A Perfect Circle’s Los Angeles reconnection. With a little luck Keenan will invest himself into the performance these next two nights – we’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, check out our review of Night Two (Thirteenth Step night) right here, Night Three right here and an interview we did recently with Billy Howerdel on APC’s plans.
Thinking of You
Ashes To Ashes (David Bowie)
Imagine (John Lennon)