Concert Review

A Perfect Circle Gave Us High School Flashbacks at Comerica Theatre

A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017.
A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017. Jim Louvau
I hate “Imagine.”

There. I said it. I cannot stand John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I love The Beatles. I enjoy their respective solo efforts. I dig the hell out of Lennon’s music. But there’s something about that paean to peace that bothers me. It gets under my skin and offends my ears in ways that not even legitimately horrible songs like “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” can accomplish. And it’s not because of Lennon’s performance: Anyone singing that song will trigger my hate.

Like when Maynard James Keenan sang it last night, in the middle of A Perfect Circle’s set at Comerica Theatre.

I had never seen A Perfect Circle live before. I was a fan. I got into them for the same reason that 90 percent of most people do: Tool. I grew up listening to Keenan's prog-metal group, so when I heard he was forming a slightly more melodic, goth-y band with Billy Howerdel I was pretty excited. Time can do strange things to your tastebuds: I almost never listen to Tool anymore, but on those rare occasions I hear an APC song it hits me "right in the feels," as the kids say.

Having recently signed a major-label deal to release a new album (their last full-length came out in 2003), the band is back on tour after a long hiatus from performing. But if they had any rust on their performance chops, they didn't show it. A Perfect Circle put on a strong set at Comerica.

A pale white sheet hung over the front of the stage. Behind the diaphanous curtain were three round risers with LED screens running down the middle of each one. Glowing from the light shining through the fabric wall, the risers looked like three huge Oreo cookies.

click to enlarge A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017. - JIM LOUVAU
A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017.
Jim Louvau
A Perfect Circle kicked off their set with “The Package,” playing the tune while the curtain obscured them. Their shadows were gigantic and contorted like they were monsters in an Expressionistic movie. It made for the most striking visual of the night.

The sheet came down for their next number, “The Hollow," the first of many Mer de Noms cuts. It revealed a strange backdrop behind the band — rows of copper-colored stalactites hanging down from the ceiling in jagged formations. The stalactites added an interesting ambiance to the evening, like we were all huddled in a dark cave somewhere.

Listening to “The Hollow” threw me for a nostalgic loop. Every note thundering through the room was an old friend that I had lost touch with. I used to listen to Mer de Noms religiously in high school. Along with the Deftones’ White Pony, it was one of the few radio rock albums to survive my Year Zero purges after I discovered punk and indie rock in 2000. A great many Creed, Korn, and Lenny Kravitz CDs were put out of their misery after I got hooked on “the good stuff."

Something about A Perfect Circle’s combination of goth-rockiness, florid lyricism, and swelling strings spoke to me. Judging from the way I felt listening to songs like “Orestes” and “Magdalena” again after losing touch with them for so long, it was clear that they still had something to say to me. Maybe it was the directness of the lyrics and music. Keenan's words, for once, weren't lost in dense thickets of extremely technical music (Tool) or in a synth-heavy, dick joke-loving echo chamber (Puscifer).

A Perfect Circle's live show isn't exactly dynamic. There aren't elaborate video projections or band members running around. The stagecraft is minimal. They let the music (and occasionally Keenan) do the talking. Keenan hung towards the back of the stage for most of the set, standing on one of the Oreo risers and singing in near darkness, content to let the guitarists prowl the front of the stage and soak up the spotlight.

One thing that’s genuinely shocking is how good Keenan sounds live. The man’s voice is note-for-note perfect compared to how he sounds on record. It’s like he hasn’t aged a day. I can’t think of many singers I’ve heard live who sound so close to their recorded selves that you couldn’t tell the difference if you were listening to them blindfolded. I’m not the biggest Tool fan (hey, you there in the Lateralus shirt, fight me), but the man’s vocal prowess can’t be denied.

click to enlarge A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017. - JIM LOUVAU
A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017.
Jim Louvau
They didn’t skimp on playing fan favorites or hits. Playing for nearly an hour and a half, they ran through most of their catalog. By the time they got to “Imagine,” I was almost exhausted from the relentlessness of their performance. Listening to Keenan sing Lennon took me back to high school (yet again), and it was then that I remembered why I hated that song so much.

In my Senior AP English class, we had to present a song and analyze its lyrics. At the time, my favorite album was At The Drive-In’s Relationship of Command. Being a huge idiot, I decided to present “One Armed Scissor”. You know what’s the only thing more excruciating than talking about William Burroughs, cut-up techniques, and Surrealist poetics to a room full of hormonal dirtbags? Realizing that everyone else picked “Imagine” as their song. Spend an entire hour listening to 35 people mumble “ah, it’s about peace and I like peace” over and over again, and you’ll learn to hate anything.

Just to be clear: Everybody else in the room seemed really into the cover. It's been a staple of their live shows since Emotive came out and drew a strong reaction from the crowd. Cellphones went up as substitute lighters, illuminating the dark room as Keenan sang the earnest anthem. As soon as the song wrapped up, he switched gears from balladeer to goofy smart-ass.

"And now, here's a song about anal sex!" Keenan said cheerfully as the band started playing "Thinking Of You."

Occasionally, Keenan would address the audience to explain the meaning of a song. He talked up the virtues of forgiveness as the band readied themselves to play "Thomas." Before they played "The Outsider," he told the crowd that the song makes more sense if you realize that the narrator in it is an asshole. But for most of the rest of the set, he stayed in the dark, farther away from the audience than anyone else in the band.

A Perfect Circle put on a compelling performance. If they ever play Phoenix again, I’d be tempted to see them. But next time, I’ll bring earplugs so I won’t have to hear Keenan sing “Imagine” again.

click to enlarge A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017. - JIM LOUVAU
A Perfect Circle performs at Comerica Theatre on Monday, April 10, 2017.
Jim Louvau
Critic’s Notebook

Last Night: A Perfect Circle at Comerica Theatre in downtown Phoenix.

The Crowd: So. Many. Tool. Shirts.

Overheard: "Your sand just permeates my clothes — I don't like it," James Iha said. Toward the end of the set, Maynard introduced everybody in the band. After announcing James, a red light shone down on the former Smashing Pumpkin as he delivered what sounded like an improvised beat poem about his experiences in Arizona. I wonder if this is a staple of APC shows, like "all right, it's time for James to drop another one of his hot Kerouac-ian freestyles!" More of this, please. Matter of fact: more James Iha in everything.

Random Notebook Dump: This is a pretty good show, but I can't help thinking about the fact that I'm missing the Better Call Saul season première right now.

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Ashley Naftule