Maynard James Keenan Remains The Most Perplexing Frontman In Rock

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Shadows dancing at the front of a cavernous basketball arena. That’s what the members of A Perfect Circle — a supergroup led by Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan — have been reduced to. The dark silhouette of a guitarist here. A drummer there. A bass player to the left. Another guitar player just behind him. And at the center of it all, a lithe Mephistopheles holding a microphone, swaying to the rhythm. “Clever got me this far,” he croons. “Then tricky got me in / Eye on what I’m after / Don’t need another friend.” Several minutes into “The Package,” an avalanche of sludgy guitars brings the curtain down. The four instrumentalists come into view. The man at the middle remains obscured in darkness.

When we think about what a frontman, or frontwoman is supposed to look like, sound like, or how they behave during a show, I think it’s safe to assume that most people’s minds don’t rush toward Maynard James Keenan. Axl Rose, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger, Gwen Stefani, Robert Plant, Courtney Love, Bono, Janis Joplin; these are your archetypical lead singers. Big personalities, positioned at the center of the stage, dancing, writhing and singing under a big, white spotlight. Every bead of sweat, every ounce of energy visibly apparent, if not broadcast on a big projection screen.

I’ve seen Maynard live twice in 2017. Well, maybe “seen” isn’t the right word. Back in June, I observed his vague, dark outline on a riser just to the left of Danny Carey during a mind-warping Tool show at Allstate Arena. I guess he was wearing some kind of riot gear during that performance, but I couldn’t really tell from my vantage point. Then, on Friday night, I watched his dancing shadow once again at an A Perfect Circle gig. Just as he had before, Maynard sang from a raised platform set far back into the stage. While the rest of the band came into focus during the hour-and-a-half-long performance, the singer remained shrouded in the din, the bouncing curls of his long, brown wig catching the light every so often.

I’ve attended several Tool concerts through the years, so I was well prepped for what to expect back in the summer. The real shock came the first time I caught the band about 10 years ago in Las Cruces, New Mexico. My vision of the band, and of Maynard, was drawn through press clippings from early Lollapalooza’s and Coachella’s, when he would gallivant around the stage in an oversized pink shirt, and some kind of mohawk/mullet hybrid hairdo. Or even later when he would come out in nothing more than a pair of briefs and a woman’s bra, painted from head-to-toe in a twisted array of blues and reds. That’s not the Maynard I experienced that night. That’s not the Maynard I’ve ever experienced.

Instead, the rest of Tool took the stage beating out an intricate tapestry of layered polyrhythms, while a dude in an orange pullover and jeans with a stegosaurus-like Mohawk and aviator shades took his place near the back of the stage. “That can’t be him,” I thought. Then he raised the microphone to his face and that unmistakable, almost angelic voice came ringing out of the giant monitors. “Yup, there he is.” The scene played out the same way in Seattle three years later, again in Spokane four years after that, and most recently again in Chicago. The clothes changed, but the shadow lingered.

At a certain point around 1998, Maynard decided he could create a better performance if he removed himself from the forefront of the show. “I receded to the back of the stage,” he explained in his official biography A Perfect Union Of Contrary Things. “As the eye contact became awkward, I stepped back. It was partly a technical decision; the sound was spilling into my mic from the cabinets behind me. But it also helped get away from the ‘frontman’ label. I absolutely hate the phrase ‘lead singer.’ I’m not a frontman. I’m just part of the story.”

It’s an innovative idea to say the least, one that flies in the face of nearly every convention we hold about what a concert is supposed to be. But then, that’s Maynard. He’s an artist who plays by a unique set of rules, unafraid to ruffle feathers, even if that means chucking people from the premises. Seriously, and I can’t stress this enough, do not try and take a video or picture of any of his bands during a show. Several signs and announcements warned as such during both concerts I caught recently, and I saw several people escorted out before the end of each gig by some eagle-eyed ushers, including a couple in front of me who tried to Snapchat a snippet of “3 Libras.”

While I personally prefer Tool’s discography to A Perfect Circle’s — that’s not a knock on APC by the way, “The Hollow,” “Weak And Powerless,” “The Noose,” and “Judith” are four of the best rock songs of the ‘00s — I have to say that Maynard is a far more compelling figure in the latter configuration; or at the very least, a more engaged one. He seldom interacts with the audience during Tool shows, but throughout A Perfect Circle’s set, he let loose with some of the deadpan humor that isn’t afraid to flash every once in a while over social media, or on old episodes of Mr. Show.

“Hello Chicago,” he said after the second or third song in the set. “Black Friday, whoa boy! Anyone get trampled? Good.” During a breakdown in “Thinking Of You” he busted out a pair of shake weights and danced around with them after decrying how difficult it was to get a decent workout in while on tour. I laughed, while the dude next to me crouched down and inhaled a deep plume of pot smoke, continuing to bang his head along to the beat.

In Maynard’s view it would seem, the experience is everything, and a sense of mystery and wonder is paramount to creating the most eye-popping evening imaginable. What is a glory-hound holding a microphone when stacked against a twisted multi-media extravaganza, filled with smoke and lights, and lasers and hundreds of decibels of disorienting prog-rock? It doesn’t work for everyone, but it certainly works for him.

Near the end of A Perfect Circle’s set he summed his entire train of thought rather perfectly. “As artists, we are merchants of emotion,” he intoned. “That’s kind of our job.” Close your eyes and open your mind.