BOSTON There was a buzz around the sold-out Avalon Ballroom during the opening night of A Perfect Circle's first headlining U.S. tour on Friday, and it centered on singer Maynard James Keenan.
It wasn't because Keenan had once been a Boston resident; it was because he is the enigmatic singer of Tool, a goth-metal powerhouse that hasn't toured for years.
"Where the frontman goes, so does the legend go," Ken Griest, 27, of Worcester, Mass., said. "A Perfect Circle seems more mature and a bit less harsh, but no less poignant than Tool is." But Arlington resident Debbie Versackas, 22, saw the band and its gold-selling debut as a substitute. "I consider it the worst Tool album made," she said, "but I do like it."
One album's worth of material left A Perfect Circle with limited options, especially since the songs on their debut disc, Mer de Noms, are sonically and dynamically similar to one another. But in addition to playing every song from the record except for "Renholder," the band threw in a schizophrenic cover that allowed Keenan to impart some of his offbeat personality.
Recalling how he once frequented a nearby dance club, Keenan told the crowd, "I used to get drunk and dance, and stumble home." Then he noted the oddity of liking Black Sabbath and the Cure at that time, setting up the band's rough graft of Ozzy Osbourne's "Diary of a Madman" and the Cure's "Love Song," merging elements, while slightly favoring the latter tune.
Such an offbeat sensibility extended to the arty opening of the group's mere hour-long set. Two women sat behind a mesh scrim, playing strip poker by candlelight (and almost making it past bras and panties) before A Perfect Circle took over, thrashing through "Magdalena" (RealAudio excerpt) before the veil was dropped.
Keenan himself was bare-chested. A long, blond wig draped his shoulders and glowed (along with his fluorescent lip gloss) under sporadic black lights. A scorpion tattoo on his back merged into a woven design down his pajama-style pants.
Hunched over, the singer staggered in a circular stomp for the melodically grand "Sleeping Beauty." Later, within the lumbering chords of "Thomas" (RealAudio excerpt), he writhed like someone punch-drunk on a balance beam.
Keenan's physical delivery helped his tormented vocals cut through the bass-heavy mix, boosted by the backup vocals of bassist Paz Lenchantin and guitarist Billy Howerdel in the hammering lurch of "Thinking of You." That song included a high-scraping solo by ex-Failure guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, though band founder Howerdel (who looked like a gaunt Billy Corgan with his shaven head and eyeliner) assumed more of a lead-guitar edge, capped by his squealing break in "Brena."
The group smartly saved its strongest material for the home stretch, including "3 Libras" (its emotional drama accented by panning light sprays), "The Hollow" (topped by drummer Josh Freese's crash-and-rumble fills) and single "Judith" (RealAudio excerpt), which closed the set behind Howerdel's eerie bottleneck slide.
"It was worth the nine-hour wait and the pain," said 19-year-old Joanne Janczurewicz of Boston, who waited that long to claim a bruising front-and-center spot in front of Keenan. "It was seriously one of the best shows I've ever seen."
Nonetheless, the lack of an encore underscored the scarcity of goods from a band that showed charisma and promise but still needs to prove itself beyond being a stylish substitute for Tool.
Likewise, British openers Sunna rode the spectrum of '90s alternative rock, from grunge to DJ-laced techno, without combining too much at once or quite distinguishing themselves on their own. But the set also missed the moodier, folkier substance of the band's debut, One Minute Science.