November 28, 2017 A Perfect Circle Enthrall West Michigan 11-22-17
The year of twenty seventeen has been a busy one for the elusive and perpetually occupied Maynard James Keenan. After a fifteen-show tour in May and June with Tool, the grape harvest at his Merkin Vineyards in Arizona, and beginning work on a new record with A Perfect Circle, he set out on a 28-date outing with A Perfect Circle that opened on October 21st in Sacramento, California, and continues through the first week of December, closing in Eugene, Oregon on the 4th.
Looking back, in 1999, when Billy Howerdel approached Keenan with songs he had written for what would become A Perfect Circle, Keenan had already found overwhelming fame, toured the world, and sold millions of records. Despite this, Keenan enjoyed the songs and offered his vocals for the project and the end result of this collaboration is A Perfect Circle. Going on to build their own fanbase and success with their 2000 debut album, Mer de Noms, followed by two more albums, 2003’s Thirteenth Step and 2004’s Emotive, then taking an extended hiatus, reforming in 2010, A Perfect Circle’s history has been interesting.
Back for more, A Perfect Circle’s current circus sideshow of freaks consists of Keenan on lead vocals, Howerdel on lead guitar and backing vocals, former The Smashing Pumpkins Guitarist James Iha on rhythm guitar, Matt McJunkins on bass and backing vocals, and Jeff Friedl on drums.
A month into their current tour, on Thanksgiving Eve, Wednesday, November 22nd, A Perfect Circle arrived at The Deltaplex Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Keenan, who grew up a hundred miles up US 131 in Scottville – and attended Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids in the early 1980s – at one point during the performance remarked, “People tell me I ought to just shut the fuck up and play, but I can’t do that. I’m from Michigan,” and the crowd went crazy.
Before going any further into details about A Perfect Circle’s set, let us not forget the supporting act, The Beta Machine. The creation of A Perfect Circle Drummer Friedl and Bassist McJunkins, rounding out the quartet were Claire Acey on keyboards and vocals alongside Nicholas Perez on another keyboard as well as vocals. Opening the night, a keyboard-centric ensemble, The Beta Machine features no less than three keyboard stations on-stage, and The Beta Machine’s music features a strong electronic sensibility.
The performance included four songs from their All This Time EP. There was “Again and Again;” a shiny, punchy beat, punctuated by the keys and features Acey’s brooding vocal style. Then there was “All This Time” features a driving, more John Carpenter in 1981’s Escape from New York dark rhythm on the keys and featured Acey and McJunkins vocals. “The End,” still heavy on the keys, featured a heavier guitar track under Acey’s vocals.
They closed the set with “Pictures,” an anthemic, guitar-driven song featuring McJunkins and Acey sharing vocals that builds and fades with something of a Deftones quality. Arguably the best track from The Beta Machine’s performance, it won over the crowd, that up to that point had been milling about and engaging in light conversation.
Over the years, Keenan has been criticized for his stage presence, or lack thereof, but his reasoning, which is two-fold for performing this way, is sound. First, many of the lyrics are delivered in a hushed manner, which Keenan claims is easier when he is at the back of the stage where it is quieter. Second, Keenan demands that he is not the most important member of the band and that being at the front of the stage would detract from the others. It is this sort of humility, though continually mischaracterized by fans and media alike, that separates Keenan from most of his peers.
The set continued with two more THE songs, “The Hollow” and “The Noose.” Next, they continued with “Weak and Powerless,” a song about obsession. Although the whole show was very high-energy with the crowd engaged from the first note, one could argue the band really hit their stride during the ever popular 2003 single.
From there, “Rose,” a song with cryptic lyrics that might best be described as being about the transition from victim to survivor of an unspecified abuse, performed live, like many of A Perfect Circle’s compositions, transitions from quiet to booming and back again. When played, these polar shifts from quiet to loud thrilled the crowd. Even during the quiet moments, there was very little noise coming from the audience; they were so wrapped up in the performance that, maybe just for a moment, they forgot to talk amongst themselves or check their messages.
That said, a lot of to-do has been made of Keenan’s “no photo” policy, but its express purpose is to create a genuine engagement between the audience and the band. In this, as long as the audience abides by the policy, A Perfect Circle has a great deal of success. Keenan wants the crowd to be fully present in order to experience it fully, and because of such, the performance is that much more electrifying.
As fans may recall, in November 2004 A Perfect Circle released Emotive, a collection of barely recognizable covers released to coincide with the U.S. presidential election of that year. That in mind, during their stop in Grand Rapids, they performed John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Depeche Mode’s “People are People.”
Before “Imagine,” Keenan spoke to the audience about the role he perceives for himself as a performer: he called himself a merchant of emotion and offered that people don’t have to like what he has to say, “but we do have to listen to each other.” Along these lines, Keenan spoke to the current contentious climate within the U.S.: “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news. I’m just gonna tell you both of them at the same time: Fox News, Huffington Post, the left, the right, Trump, Breitbart, Facebook… none of these things are your enemy. Your enemy is ignorance, that’s the fight.” To that end, Keenan encouraged people of all political leanings to talk to each other, but more importantly, that we need to listen to each other. This lent substantial credibility to “Imagine,” turning it from a dark, melancholic piece that mourns the loss of Eden, to a hopeful number that envisions a world without heaven, countries, possessions, where all the world is living for today and sharing all the world.
After Keenan’s soliloquy about listening to each other, he let the music speak for itself and did not address the crowd again. The middle part of the performance consisted of a number of A Perfect Circle staples including “By and Down,” “Thomas,” “Orestas,” and “Vanishing.” All the band’s renditions were nearly flawless and the light show mesmerized the audience, adding a visual component to the sensual spectacle of the performance. Furthermore, the crowd was further entranced by a reworking of “3 Libras,” a reimagining of one of the more popular songs from Mer de Noms. The remixed version is a floating, rambling collection of electronics and disparate patches of lyrics that, while true to the original, reinterprets the song and keeps it fresh.
As the show reached its latter third, A Perfect Circle played “Counting Bodies Like Sheep to the Rhythm of the War Drums,” quite possibly the longest title in the band’s catalog and a song that was mostly electronic on the album. Although, it has been adapted in the live performance to utilize two guitar parts yet still retains some electronic elements. It is presented as an anti-war anthem, but under the surface there is a subtext that criticizes the dependency citizens tend to have on the government. As usual, the live rendition was startling, with a strange time signature and structure. The audience, again, silent throughout the song, exploded with applause at the end of the number.
Now, the elephant in the room is the fact that A Perfect Circle has not recorded an album in 13 years. Quite a long time, Howerdel explained that the band undertook this tour to put them in “panic mode” to finish a new album. This approach seems to have worked because during the set they performed three new songs. The single “Doomed,” which was released on the eve of the current tour, is one of A Perfect Circle’s angriest songs. Of “Doomed,” Keenan says: “In light of this current and polarized social, spiritual, and political climate, we artist types need to open our big mouths and share the light a little louder.”
With a biting outro, “Doomed are the the poor / Doomed are the peaceful / Doomed are the meek / Doomed are the merciful / For the word is now death / And the word is now without light / The new beatitude: ‘Fuck the doomed, you’re on your own,” the lyrics leave no question about A Perfect Circle’s perspective on the direction that the world is going. The live version of “Doomed” is an angry, deliberate song, performed flawlessly by Keenan and company. More importantly, it evoked a strong reaction from the crowd who was already ecstatic during the band’s performance.
As for the other new songs, A Perfect Circle also performed “Hourglass” and “Feathers” from the upcoming, as-yet, untitled record. Keenan, who prefers to leave interpretation of his lyrics to the listener, has made no comment on the meaning of these songs, but a close listening leaves one with the impression that “Hourglass” refers to climate change and the idea that the toll humans are taking on the planet is unsustainable.
Similarly, “Feathers,” which closed the show, follows the anti-establishment theme. When discussing his music, Keenan advises that all his lyrics contain at least a hint of subtext, but, in his words, “We’re not going to beat you over the head with it. If you don’t want to get it, you don’t have to… you can just tap your feet, jump up and down, whatever you want to do. We’re going to give you something that’s more than the sum of its parts. There’s something else there, and depending on where you are in your life, you may hear it, or you may not.” With that idea in mind, it becomes clear that these new songs have a deeper meaning, but they, like all the A Perfect Circle songs performed that night, plus everything they have recorded, can be taken at face value and enjoyed for what they are.
A performance to remember, as A Perfect Circle finished “Feathers,” they took a bow and headed off-stage. Leaving everyone in the crowd electrified and wanting more, the inspired band also left everyone hopeful for early 2018 when the new album finally sees the light of day.