MORRISON, Colorado There might be a better setting for a Tool concert, but it doesn't exist in waking life: The prehistoric, rugged beauty of Red Rocks Amphitheater felt almost threatening when serving as the physical backdrop for the band's volcanic performance on Friday night, which opened a brief tour with prog-rock veterans King Crimson.
Flanked by rock formations pushed up from the bubbling earth more than 60 million years ago (and donning a bald head, sporadic body paint and a black leather bodice), Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan looked like an androgynous ambassador of the apocalypse. Judging by the capacity crowd the show sold out in less than an hour Keenan's faithful are more eager than ever to receive his message, even as the band's sound moves further and further from the mainstream.
Viewing Keenan onstage is like glimpsing a rare animal in the wild: He has so much internal energy he seems primed to explode, or bolt, at any moment. Cloaked in leathers of various lengths for "Lateralis," he wore nothing but boots and a pair of Speedo-like underthings he rarely broke from his trance-like state to acknowledge the audience. Rather, he showed fans his back and crouched near a gigantic video screen in the middle of the stage as it projected images of the band, as well as the anatomically oriented illustrations that have become Tool's hallmark.
At times, Keenan seemed physically pained by the rigors of his live performance, casting shadows with his own writhing body that mirrored the rhythmic pulsing of multi-colored strobe lights.
Tool focused on material from their new album, Lateralus, a sweeping, ambitious, slower work that finds them continuing to eschew the song-driven confines of metal or alternative rock. Their decision to strike out on a short tour with King Crimson the once and future kings of progressive rock suggests Tool are doing their best to shed the associations of their grunge-era beginnings and dive head first into the grand chasm of art rock, to the possible dismay of some fans who expected to hear more familiar material.
Though the band did indulge those fans with faithful readings of some older songs including "Prison Sex" and "Aenima," Friday's show had much to do with the down-tempo, contemplative meanderings of a more introspective Keenan found on songs from the new album such as "Ticks & Leeches" and "Reflection." Both of those hovered near the 10-minute mark.
The night felt more like an opera, or a German-style cabaret set in Thunderdome, than the aggression-filled romps that marked the band's early performances. Still, Tool conveyed a kind of frenzied macho-ness, a quality heightened by Keenan's cult leader-like presence.
Tool were both convincing and over-the-top in their intensity, two qualities Keenan and crew may well have lifted from the King Crimson school of live performance. At one point during Tool's set, Keenan acknowledged his debt to the long-running art rockers: "For me, being on stage with King Crimson is like Lenny Kravitz playing with Led Zeppelin, or Britney Spears onstage with Debbie Gibson."
In a prolonged opening set, artsy elder statesmen Robert Fripp and his mates regrouped for a short tour supporting a series of reissues of the band's early work reflected the sonic indulgence that has defined the band since the late '60s. King Crimson didn't crack a smile during excursions into jazz, fusion and psychedelia. "Thela Hun Ginjeet," King Crimson's only non-instrumental offering of the day, was a moment of lightness in a dense and difficult set.
While it's nice to think that Tool's fans might appreciate the chance to visit some of the strange, unwieldy places from whence the band's music springs, King Crimson's music might have been a bit too cerebral for those who were here to rock.