Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Keeping It Surreal: Puscifer Hits the Jersey Shore

"Agent Dick Merkin" of Puscifer

There are few people in this world more incendiary than an artist who’s earned the right not to give a single fuck.

Thirty years ago this month, singer Maynard James Keenan hit the small second stage during Lollapalooza’s stop at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey. He appeared as the frontman of Tool, a buzz band out of LA that had released its debut album, Undertow, a few months earlier. Even on an eclectic bill that exposed Cow Country concertgoers to everyone from Front 242 to Arrested Development, the mohawked vocalist truly looked like a visitor from another planet. Anchored by a jaw-dropping sonic backdrop courtesy of bandmates who’d clearly listened to more than a few Prog albums, the man proceeded to slay the crowd with one of the richest, most expressive voices heard that day. To my 16-year-old ears that afternoon, Keenan and Tool sounded like the future of music.


As the past three decades have shown, I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Years removed from being a second-stage act, Tool now fills out 20,000-seat arenas in support of chart-topping albums. The band’s extraordinary success has afforded Keenan the opportunity to pursue extracurricular passions both musical (A Perfect Circle) and entrepreneurial (Merkin Vineyards). In 2007, he began releasing music with a side project called Puscifer, a piss-taking experimental mindfuck that allows him the chance to play in a surreal sandbox without the commercial and logistical demands of his main gig. Placing that kind of power in the hands of someone with nothing to prove or lose is like giving a kid the keys to the world’s largest candy store—and anyone who listens to a Puscifer release or ventures into one of the group’s batshit bonkers live shows is in for an experience they won’t soon forget.


After a six-year break from overseas touring, Puscifer recently preceded a jaunt through Europe with a handful of U.S. dates. One of these performances, held at the 1,400-seat Sound Waves Theater in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, showcased something more akin to a Broadway show from Mars than a traditional Rock show. With an onstage aesthetic that fell somewhere between GWAR (sans bodily fluids) and the band from the talent show scene in Revenge of the Nerds, the group delivered an evening of pristine musicality augmented by video presentations and a stage set with scaffolding and props galore.

Carina Round and Maynard James Keenan

The night began with a video introduction by one of Keenan’s outrageous Puscifer personas, Agent Dick Merkin, who cheekily warned attendees that anyone caught breaking the band’s notoriously strict no-photo/video policy during the show would be ground up into Spam. (That said, please enjoy the band-sanctioned live shots by Kris Ohmen Photography, taken exclusively for this website, that accompany this review.) 


The insanity escalated from there. With stellar vocalist/keyboardist Carina Round aiding greatly in the theatrics department, Keenan (who, in addition to Agent Dick Merkin, also appeared as the redneck-y Billy D) and the rest of the Puscifer circus amazed and amused the crowd. Their two-hour selection of songs leaned heavily on 2020’s Existential Reckoning with a few moments from past releases (including a mind-blowing “The Remedy” off 2015’s Money Shot) added in for good measure. Puscifer foreshadowed different album eras represented in the set via pre-recorded vignettes that were worth the price of admission alone. (At one point, Agent Merkin revealed that Plasmatics frontwoman Wendy O. Williams—who, as it turns out, never actually died—lives on in the body of… Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, because of course she does.)

After whiplashing the audience with aural and visual absurdity, Puscifer wrapped up its Atlantic City stop with the Existential Reckoning number “Bedlamite,” which perfectly summarized the evening’s glorious escapist entertainment through the repeated chorus of “It's gonna be all right/Everything will be all right." For two hours on a Friday night at the Jersey Shore, everything really was all right.

Thank you, Maynard—er, I mean Agent Merkin!

Emily Kavanaugh of Night Club

Electronic duo Night Club opened the festivities with a brief set of well-received Goth-tinged Dance Rock. Full marks to frontwoman Emily Kavanaugh, daughter of late Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes keyboardist Kevin Kavanaugh, whose high-energy command of the stage did her home state proud.

Official Puscifer Website

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com