Sunday, November 26, 2023

The New Anthem of the Sun?: Tool Live in New Hampshire

Tool has always been an odd one.

When the band first performed for large audiences, it was by far the weirdest in the weird lineup of bands storming America on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. The quartet charged out of the gate with music that was thematically dark and sonically complex—one of the band’s early hits was called “Prison Sex,” for fuck’s sake—and a logo that could very easily be interpreted as a huge metal cock. On paper, none of what the band did during the anything-goes (-and-sells) “alternative” wave of the era should have yielded more than a single Gold album and an array of smirks from the music press. (There were plenty of examples of that phenomenon back then. Hell, even Butthole Surfer had a dalliance with the Top 40 album chart in the ’90s.) However, Tool not only survived the rise and inevitable market crash of the Alternative Nation but had sold 13.4 million albums by August 2019.

Very little about these fuckers makes sense. They’re four rich men who’ve never been accused of selling out. Their albums top the charts at a time when nobody buys records. Earlier this month, they drew 11,000 or so people to a show in Manchester, New Hampshire (far from a typical hotbed of activity) on a Monday night. That evening, the band—which, in a world where everyone is glued to a screen, banned the use of phones and other means of photography (enjoy the exclusive, band-sanctioned pics contained herein, folks)—dropped an intermission into the middle of its two-hour set but split without delivering an encore (opting instead to have a recording of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” pumped through the arena as audience members left their seats.) And the songs went on for bloody eons—perfect for Yes in 1973 but not customary for a typical Rock band in 2023. Also, the group’s fans are clearly a rabid lot—this is their band. Simply put, Tool is a musical and cultural phenomenon out of left field. How in the world did a band that once played Lollapalooza’s second stage (one-time home to chartbusters like … well, nobody else I can think of) become my generation’s Grateful Dead? (Give that comparison a good think. I ain’t wrong.) The answer is simple: Tool has always been a band with a singer who can really sing and three musicians who could make classic-era King Crimson break a sweat. For 120 minutes on a chilly evening in New England, Tool was the greatest live band on this planet—and perhaps on a few others.

So what exactly made the group so great that night in New Hampshire, then? Honestly, that’s a tough question to answer. How can a person write about something that needs to be seen, heard, and felt to be understood? With Tool, if you know, you know. That’s pretty much it. Hyperbolic fanboy squealing from a fortysomething typing away in his apartment on a Saturday afternoon while listening to Fear Inoculum ain’t gonna add anything new to the mix … but I will say this about the show:

1. I last saw Tool live more than 30 years ago. The fellas were good then, but it appears they’ve been practicing.

2. Each member of Tool is an awe-inspiring sonic genius. You could have just Maynard, Adam, Justin, or Danny up there alone for two hours and the show would still be worth the price of admission. Frankly, I’ve never encountered such individual talent in a single group. This is not a band—this is a symphony conducted by a Mohawk.

3. Fucking Danny Carey, man. I’ve been a drummer for 37 years and have performed on 50 releases—including one featuring Danny himself—and I still can’t figure out 95 percent of what he does behind a kit. He’s equal parts Bonzo and Bruford.

4. Parking was a breeze.