The man who aptly calls himself Buckethead (he wears an upside-down KFC bucket on his head and an expressionless Halloween-inspired Michael Myers mask) is quite the underground musical legend and guitar virtuoso. I had known about his collaborations with Les Claypool and Primus, Guns N’ Roses, and soundtrack work, but didn’t know that as of August 2012, he has released 37 solo albums. Really- 37?! These aren’t just 15-minute EPs or remixes (I get tired of that word); most of the albums run over 45 minutes and many of the songs are long and super intricate too. Speaking of collaborations — according to his Wikipedia page, he has appeared on over 50 albums by other artists.
He’s one of those performers where I don’t exactly know where to start when checking out their material. Should I start at the beginning, middle or go with new stuff? I came in not really knowing what to expect from a Buckethead show.
I entered the club shortly after 9 p.m. A DJ was already spinning up on stage and I realized that he was the opener, DJ Samples (aka Ben Samples) who, according to his website, plays “bass-heavy remixes of club and hip hop favorites, original glitch hop, soulful dub step, funky house or amalgamations of other styles”. From what I heard, he played standard electronic with samples of The Beastie Boys, Rage against the Machine, and AC/DC. He seemed to be enjoying twiddling the knobs of his mixer and bobbing his head but it appeared as he was the only one. The problem here wasn’t that he was a shitty DJ—I think that most of the crowd (myself included) were looking for guitars or at least some sort of band. Most of us didn’t really know what to make of him; I saw one or two middle fingers raised with some minimal applause. The samples were familiar but didn’t really work.
After Samples had finished his set, he packed up his gear and walked off stage. Then strange carnival and 1940s-style cabaret music came on. Each sound clip was maybe a minute at the most. We heard old Disney show tunes like Davy Crockett, Turkey in the Straw, When You Wish Upon a Star (yes, as sung by Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and supposedly one of Buckethead’s favourites), and Old West and sci-fi TV and movie songs. Let me say again for the record that all this was strange, but rather expected.
Around 10:15, assisted by a surgical-masked and dreadlocked guitar/sampler stagehand, Buckethead (born Brian Patrick Carroll in 1969) walked out on stage and immediately picked up his guitar. It was none other than his own signature oversized Alpine White custom Gibson Les Paul. The thing retails on Gibson’s online store for a mere $4,311. I’m not going to go into the technical aspects of his piece except to say that it allows him to really shred. I also don’t know a lot of the crazy tricks and musical theory he used like finger taps, hammer-ons/offs, pulls, bends, delay knobs, scales, time signatures, etc., but he can completely pull them off live.
He played all alone on stage to pre-recorded tracks and loops which he started himself. Surprisingly, a band really doesn’t seem necessary; it’s his sheer guitar ability that is on display here.
At one point, I went up to the balcony to get a look at his pedal arrangement- it seems like he uses between 6 and 8. From the songs that he played, I heard speed metal, slower balladry, funk, jazz, industrial, ambient, prog rock, and maybe some odd country parts—often all in the same song. He also played sections of “Purple Haze” and the aforementioned “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the middle of a couple.
Buckethead is also known for his mime and robot moves both in his playing style and dance theatrics. During one break between songs he grabbed two giant Styrofoam cartoon hands (not unlike those found at sporting events) and did some synchronized mechanical movements to machinery and dubstep sounds. He also used his guitar to send off machine gun and laser sound effects. About three-quarters of the way through his set he grabbed a giant Santa Claus sack and handed out gifts to the crowd; it looked like CDs, books, toys and props. He pulled out a plastic chainsaw and a severed zombie head that I’ve seen him use as a ventriloquist act in interviews. He also has affection for kung fu movies and expertly swung around a pair of nunchucks. All of this was done during a dubstep-style mashup of techno staples “Whoomp! (There It Is)” and “Pump Up the Jam”.
All in all, I was impressed at just how much cult appeal Buckethead has. He’s obviously one of the world’s best guitarists but he seems to be humble and doesn’t use typical rock-star posing. There’s no need to showboat when your musical proficiency is so apparent. I wouldn’t say he’s completely shy, but he has a quirky almost child-like charm that is reminiscent of Johnny Depp’s characters in Benny & Joon or Edward Scissorhands. He’s playful, but professional at the same time; besides stopping to re-tune his six-string, he never took breaks for drinks (I’m not sure if he’d even be able to with his mask) or spoke to the crowd. When he left the stage at 11:30, an encore wasn’t needed.
So is watching a 43-year-old man with long curly black hair who wears a mask and an upside-down bucket of fast-food chicken on their head while playing guitar, dancing like a robot and pulling ninja moves ridiculous? Of course it is, but it’s a nice kind of ridiculousness.