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Tool Mesmerize the Faithful at Madison Square Garden: Concert Review

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With just five albums over a 30-plus-year career but an esoteric, enigmatic and formidable mystique and strain of progressive post-metal, Tool are one of the world’s biggest cult bands, inspiring a level of fandom and devotion that many artists would envy.

And those fans packed two nights at Madison Square Garden last weekend, where the foursome, as is their wont, eschewed most if not all traditional “rock show” expectations and conventions. To wit: The group did not perform some of their most-popular songs —such as their career-defining ‘90s singles “Sober” and “Stinkfist” — and frontman Maynard James Keenan was more of a back-man, performing from two raised platforms at the rear of the stage, rarely spotlighted and never even setting foot on the main stage. He also has long since abandoned the wildly provocative stage costumes of past years, opting instead for businesslike dress pants, vest and crisp white shirt that contrast jarringly with his mohawkesque hairstyle.

Instead, he ceded center stage to the band’s mind-melting visuals — broadcast on a gigantic video screen, veering between psychedelic and grotesque — and superhuman drummer Danny Carey, whose powerful and inventive musicianship make him the band’s de facto frontman. (If Rush ever tour again, he should be the only drummer even considered to cover for the late Neil Peart — sorry, Dave Grohl.) The group also keeps a tight lid on photography of their concerts, presumably wanting to keep the experience in the room.

That applies to fans as well: Keenan began the show by inviting the audience on “a little ride… a journey,” instructing them in no uncertain terms to “stay present” and put away their “fucking phones.” And mostly, they obeyed. Mesmerizing kaleidoscopic images swirled on the screens as Keenan stalked his two stages, alternately pacing or rocking back and forth in place, feral-seeming and insect-like for “Fear Inoculum” and “The Pot.” At more than 10 minutes in length, 2019’s “Fear Inoculum” was epic, the tribal drums, bass and guitar decidedly discrete but cohesive, the eerily prescient lyrics (“Immunity long overdue / Contagion, I exhale you”) as spooky as the instrumentation.

Carey, guitarist Adam Jones and bassist Justin Chancellor have arsenals of effects, and not to be outdone, Keenan uses a megaphone to creepy effect in the spacey “Rosetta Stoned.” (The song clocks in at 11:11, which, considering the band’s creative predilections, is not an accident.) The tale in the lyrics — though not an easy storyline to follow in a live setting — illustrates Kennan’s slightly profane humor and a fascination with encountering and exploring UFOs and “grays”… and perhaps, drugs. “Then the X-Files being/  Looking like some kind of blue-green Jackie Chan with Isabella Rossellini lips … Did a slo-mo Matrix descent out of the butt-end of the banana vessel,” he intones.

Tool’s humor is subtle — a dichotomy and a part of the band’s appeal not instantly apparent to casual listener. But then again, casual Tool fans are an anomaly: Their followers are devoted, swaying to the nearly 12-minute-long “Pneuma,” with Jones’ gentle yet staccato guitar lines creating an uneasy, portentous mood. And although the group continues to challenge their audience musically, some songs are more accessible than others — the set included a stellar track Tool haven’t played live in 13 years, 1993’s edgy, muscular rocker “Flood.”

If the set list wasn’t as expansive as some might have liked, it differed between the two MSG nights, a boon for the likely many fans who went to both shows. And the only break in the mood-setting and mind-bending was a baffling 12-minute-long intermission following “The Grudge” — complete with a countdown clock on the video screen — which was followed by just four songs (though of course none of them were brief). The second half began rather anticlimactically, with Carey playing a giant gong before launching into his drum solo, which was followed by a brief bass solo. But then the group plunged into “Chocolate Chip Trip,” successfully re-immersing the audience.

In many ways, Tool are a rock band in name only — some of their songs are more like compositions, and their shows are definitely intended to be full sensory experiences, transcendence-seeking in group settings, than traditional rock-out concerts. And although the experience is as much the point of most concerts as the music itself, few artists emphasize that point as much as Tool does: While Carey is a marvel to witness and Chancellor occasionally exhorts the crowd, for all their musical ability, Keenan and Jones are low-key presences onstage, as if they don’t want to get in the way of the dark idyll of the experience. And it’s a heady one indeed: This journey could have gone on even longer, and they would not have lost a single passenger.

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