Viejas Arena, San Diego State University
Jan. 10, 2016

Better than… Driving to San Francisco on a Sunday night.

If you want one word about what this current Tool tour feels like, that one word is “underwhelming.”

Tool plays concerts, but not often and not in a lot of places. Maynard James Keenan's other projects, which include Puscifer and an Arizona winery among others, seem to excite him more than lugging a psychedelic prog-metal dog and pony show around the country. Which is fine, everyone has hobbies. But why, on this tour, are they skipping us, the band’s original hometown? Where did the bad Hollywood boy hurt them? What did the mean Van Nuys lady say that made them cry? Someone or something in Los Angeles really must have given them a serious boo boo.

So, while driving two hours south to San Diego because the band skipped the city that spawned them feels like conceding to the whims of bruised childish egos, it was also the most convenient way for Angelenos see them this year. (Unless anyone wanted to trek to San Francisco, but who wants to do that?) So we gassed up and slalomed legions of OC SUVs on the 5 to be there.

When the opening notes of their opening number came through at precisely 9 p.m., building into their masterful interpretation of “No Quarter,” the trudge started to feel a little more worth it. Even without knowledge of complex scales or Tool’s love of sacred math and all that Sedona-yoga-retreat horseshit, their 11-minute version of Led Zeppelin’s live show centerpiece makes a perfect fit into the seriously progressive end of the band’s catalog. Plus, all those baked kids got to sniff the structure of the universe in much the same way their Zep-adled uncles once did.

Dressed in his formal SWAT tacticools like a lost extra from The Raid, Keenan stalked the shadows from the unlit portion of a back platform, allowing spotlights to irradiate Tool’s real front men: guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey. Which was just as well; Keenan’s helmet gave him more the air of Michael Dukakis’ campaign-killing tank photo op from 1988, than any kind of metal menace.

Justin Chancellor, being workmanlike.; Credit: Photo by Levan TK

Justin Chancellor, being workmanlike.; Credit: Photo by Levan TK

Through a set heavy on 1996’s stroke-of-genius breakout Ænima, at least Chancellor outdid himself. Despite some sloppy moments during their anthemic “Forty-Six & 2,” he hammered down his inimitable style for nearly two hours with workmanlike dedication. Carey, for his part, rarely missed a beat. Which, I guess, is exactly his job.

Despite some L.A. cracks meant to rally the average San Diegan, the band was at its weakest on their new material. The instrumental track that fans are calling “Descending” really failed to blow back any bangs. Since their most recent album, 10,000 Days, is almost 10 years old (one year older than the first iPhone), their next album needs to be truly mind-bending — and if “Descending” is any indication, I'm nervous. When is that new one coming out again, guys? At this rate, we’ll get to hear it while we’re reading George R.R. Martin’s ending to the Song of Ice and Fire saga on the beaches of Arizona Bay.

All told, thanks in no small part to Jones’ Brothers Quay-style videos and Windows 95-screensaver-style trippy visuals, the whole show felt just OK. If not underwhelming, then definitely just whelming. The crowd — a menagerie of 1990s college subcultures, bro-dads, sun-faded Sublime tattoos and moms with labret piercings — hardly seemed to mind that they weren’t getting the band at 100 percent. They hoisted their arms like penitents, they screamed in ecstasy when Keenan — through his palpable disdain — taunted them, and they sang along to the city-tailored lyrics of “Ænema.” Even as they felt the constant wrath of an overly aggressive venue security apparatus, they still took it with joy. When Tool, after a 12-minute intermission, wrapped up with the rarely played “Sweat” and an extended “Stinkfist,” they dutifully raised their stinky fists.

So, was it worth the 200 miles round trip of SoCal asphalt, the slow-going Laguna Beach luxury sedans, and the constantly pupil-dilating security flashlights? Meh, I suppose so. I went to see a Tool show and I got a Tool show. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Overheard in the crowd: “What do you guys think about this Guns N' Roses reunion thing?” “Fuckin’ Axl’s probably already there, just waiting.” “That’s all?” “Probably won’t happen.” “Yeah, never gonna happen.”

Set list:
No Quarter (Led Zeppelin cover)
The Grudge
Forty-Six & 2


(Drum Solo)

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