How does a band that hasn’t released music since 2004’s eMOTIVe, and has played few shows since, sell out the 9,450-capacity Red Rocks Amphitheatre? The simplest answer may be that the band features Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of the rock band Tool. The cult-like following Tool has garnered during its 20 years certainly does spill over into A Perfect Circle’s fan base, but don’t let that fool you. A Perfect Circle is not some kind of “side project” for Keenan to indulge in his musical guilty pleasures. A Perfect Circle is its own entity with a sound very much different than TOOL. This is because the centerpiece of A Perfect Circle (APC) is the guitarist/singer Billy Howerdel.
The audience was well aware of this as Maynard introduced the band in the middle of the set. Judging by the applause, Howerdel received the most cheers from a dedicated and captivated crowd. So, how does Howerdel fit into the picture? Tool’s longtime guitar tech, he has written nearly all of A Perfect Circle’s material and even went on to front the mildly successful Ashes Divide after APC took a hiatus from recording and playing shows. From the band Ashes Divide, A Perfect Circle conscripted bassist Matt McJunkins and drummer Jeff Friedl whose lockstep rhythm provided the cavernous foundation for APC’s swirling, lysergic opuses. Howerdel and fellow guitarist James Iha, of Smashing Pumpkins fame, traded off lead and rhythms telepathically. Much like painters, Howerdel and Iha’s guitars spiraled and chased each other across the canvas created by solid rhythm section, and Maynard’s vocals were the final brush strokes upon each composition. There was neither a wrong note to be played nor a drum fill that was out of place. A Perfect Circle was well-rehearsed and sharp on the 20th date of their tour.
Opening up was Tokyo, Japan’s, Red Bacteria Vacuum an all-female punk power trio. With three chord riffage indebted in equal parts to hardcore punk and The Ramones, Red Bacteria Vacuum was an unlikely opener for A Perfect Circle, but their sloppy, energetic charm was not lost upon the crowd at Red Rocks. The crowd was asked to clap and sing along. The band even had a fourth hype-gal who would hold a poster with the slogan “enso watanosi,” which translates to “It’s fun to play music for you.” Despite the overcast weather and a crowd mostly searching for their seat, Red Bacteria Vacuum played with ferocity at breakneck speeds. These ladies were not gun shy, as they owned the stage and weren’t hard on the eyes either. Playing punk rock in front of an audience seems counter-intuitive, but Red Bacteria brought the stage presence with big rock moves and posturing. Relying on duel vocals, the bassist and guitarist voices seem to have a nice counterpoint to one another. The guitar player’s vocals at times were reminiscent of the Riot grrl movement of the early ’90s, and surely the band wore their influences as a badge of honor. Concluding their set and telling the crowd how much they loved them, Red Bacteria Vacuum exited the stage to a rare, but mighty, applause for an opening band.
As roadies began setting up for APC’s set, the P.A. puzzlingly blared songs from The Sound of Music through its gigantic speakers. The music choice seemed to get a few chuckles from the audience and caused a few concertgoers to scratch their heads, wondering if they were at the wrong rock show. A Perfect Circle is a band that plays serious music, but they also have a wicked sense humor, make no mistake. After about an hour sound check and stage set-up, the lights went out and A Perfect Circle entered the stage to a thunderous roar from the audience. Maynard being the last to enter the stage went to his stage right position upon a 4-foot drum riser to the back and into the shadows. At this point it looked like the near capacity of Red Rocks was electric with anticipation. Without a word, the band walked on the stage and picked up their instruments, all except for Billy Howerdel, who sat down and played children’s piano placed center stage. Beginning with “Annihilation,” a Crucifix cover, APC set the tone that this show would consist of originals from the band’s first two albums and covers from their third album, eMOTIVe. Most of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with this cover of the obscure ’80s hardcore band, but the crowd’s attention was to the band, mostly towards Maynard, was unimpeded. As the song built a haunting, atmosphere, upon lyrical themes of liberation and the apocalypse, the drums and bass entered in the fray minutes later, and immediately the crowd responded delightedly to the gargantuan hits upon the bass drum. Segueing directly into A Perfect Circle’s cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” there was little doubt that this set was to be eclectic and highly unpredictable. Although APC remained faithful to the words and structure of the original, the band altered the song to be played as a somber minor-key power ballad. I couldn’t help but yearn for original version by John Lennon, as the message of hope seemed to be lost in the quagmire of melodic melodrama. Granted, A Perfect Circle renders each and every cover in its catalog in artistically original manner, APC is the type of band that excels at playing their own songs. Regardless of the critical bias, “Imagine” certainly is a fan favorite for A Perfect Circle and is the lead single off eMOTIVe.
A Perfect Circle seemed to really hit their stride when their original material was played. The one-two punch of “Weak and Powerless” and “The Hollow” was a prime example of the band’s command of grace and raw power. Masters of subtlety, APC displayed their ragged charm on the softly sung verses, which segued beautifully into the soaring vocal harmonies in the chorus. Billy Howerdel’s voice provided the perfect vocal foil to Maynard’s baritone. Each harmony was performed nearly pitch-perfect and faithful to the studio version. After the catharsis of back-to-back rockers, the band went into another pair of covers with its own spin on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” There seemed to be a pattern developing of covers played in two and originals in sets of two and three. Directly following was APC’s rendering of Depeche Mode’s “People are People.”
Continuing the set with triumvirate of “The Outsider,” “Rose” and “Blue,” APC once again shifted the focus back on the power of their original songwriting. Most notable during the performance of “The Outsider” was Billy Howerdel’s inventive use of slide guitar, recalling the scales of baroque or even middle-eastern music. James Iha’s rhythm guitar provided a heavy-riff backdrop for Howderdel’s delay-laden guitar runs to weaving in and out of the composition. Without a word, the band immediately transitioned into “Rose,” a haunting epic with softly sung verses juxtaposed against the distorted bass lines of new bassist Matt McJunkins. McJunkins, being stage right in front of Maynard, soaked up the attention of the crowd and rocked hard without missing a beat. After “Rose” the band once again lowered the volume considerably and built the atmosphere for “Blue,” a single off the critically acclaimed album Thirteenth Step. Beginning with a ringing bass line and sparse guitar, “Blue” explored the soft-loud dynamics one step further as minimal atmospheric verses built to distorted harmony-laden power choruses.
The real strength of the show, vocally, was Maynard and Howerdel’s ability to layer their respective voices on top of each in a harmonious, perhaps even Beatle-esque, fashion. In fact, on “(What’s so funny) About Peace Love and Understanding,” Billy Howerdel was the featured vocalist on the cover of Brinsley Schwartz. While he is no Maynard, Howerdel is a more-than-accomplished singer, and his voice’s vulnerability rivals that of his famous bandmate. Up next was APC’s rendition of Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Out of all covers the band has have recorded, this one is perhaps the strongest. It displays APC’s ability to communicate a classic song in a new way. The song is stripped of all its original parts and is updated as a down-tempo opus, like something that Portishead might play. Directly following the two covers, APC continued the theme of atmospheric precedence over volume with the aching “Noose.” This song perhaps more than anything displays APC’s signature sound more than anything else. Especially strong on this song was the Jeff Friedel’s drumming and Maynard’s voice. Radio-friendly with the right amount of darkness and melodrama, the “Noose” displayed that APC excels at writing songs that could fit the pop format of four minutes or fewer.
After “Noose,” the group went seamlessly into the not so well-known “3 Libras (All Main Courses Mix).” The original is pretty lovely and left many wondering why APC just didn’t play that. The approach itself is not so unfamiliar to the way A Perfect Circle handles how they do covers, except in this case they seemed to be covering their own song. “3 Libras (All Main Courses Mix)” was exciting and certainly the noisiest song of the set, as Howerdel and Iha tweaked their delay pedals and let their guitars ring out ceaselessly. Following the alternate version of “3 Libras,” the somber, tom-driven “Gravity” was played. This song was obviously a fan favorite as the crowd sung in unison with Maynard. Directly following “Gravity,” APC played Black Flag’s “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie.” However, there was absolutely no resemblance to the original song. APC turned Flag’s hardcore anthem into a waltz. Call it hardcore waltz, but don’t call me a sinner.
Following up the Black Flag cover, “Orestes,” off Mer de Noms, was played to a deafening applause from the audience. Already 16 songs in, the band didn’t seem to lose an ounce of momentum. The audience was ready to rock out more and APC delivered with heavy-handed song “Passive.” As one of the few originals off of 2004’s eMOTIVe, “Passive” was played brilliantly to a captivated audience.
After the song finished, Maynard spoke of how this was the point in the show when the band would pretend to leave the stage, only to (predictably) come back to play a few more songs. Airing his disdain for the big theatrics involved with encores, Maynard announced to a cheering crowd that “this is not the exiting band.” He asked the crowd to pretend that the band had just left and returned. The lights were turned out and band remained motionless until the opening notes of “Counting bodies like sheep to rhythm of the war drum” was played. Closing out the set was a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Fiddle And The Drum,” a duet featuring Maynard and James Iha on keys. As the rest of the band departed, this was the token moment for the crowd to raise their lighters to the soft ballad. The final song was “By and Down.”
It has been seven years since A Perfect Circle last performed at Red Rocks. Will there be another?
Photos by David Accomazzo