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Electronica, vaudeville meet in Puscifer

Maynard James Keenan, known as the singer in the band Tool, brings his tent-revival-like troupe Puscifer to town. Maynard James Keenan, known as the singer in the band Tool, brings his tent-revival-like troupe Puscifer to town.
By Scott McLennan
Globe Correspondent / March 12, 2010

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In the mid-1990s, Maynard James Keenan left Los Angeles to take up residence in Jerome, Ariz., an abandoned copper-mining town. Jerome is in the hills south of Sedona, where artists, hippies, and myriad other escapees from the norm have migrated since the late 1960s, transforming it into an outpost of desert hip.

Within Jerome’s community of roughly 350 residents, the man best known as the singer in the prog-metal band Tool planted seeds for a couple of projects now ripe for public consumption.

First, there’s Keenan’s involvement with Arizona winemaking. He and winemaker Eric Glomski oversee Merkin and Stronghold vineyards and their associated Caduceus Cellars. The pair last year struck a deal to sell the wines at Whole Foods markets, and visited a few, including the one on River Street in Cambridge. Their appearance in June attracted crowds that looked ready for an Ozzfest rather than a trip to the earthy-crunchy enclave. Keenan, 45, traces his taste for wine to 1987, when he lived in Boston with a roommate who worked at the Martignetti’s store formerly in the North End.

“I know my role,’’ the self-effacing Keenan said in a recent interview. “I can do what the others can’t in this project, and that’s flap my yap.’’

Keenan’s other Jerome-bred project hits town next week, when Puscifer will be at Berklee Performance Center on Monday and Tuesday.

Keenan started cooking up Puscifer music also in the mid 1990s. A revolving cast of musicians aided him, and in 2007 he finally got around to releasing a Puscifer album.

Using the words “band’’ and “concert’’ while speaking of Puscifer will draw a retort from Keenan. He prefers to call Puscifer a troupe, with the performances being part theatrical, part musical, and never outright settled. Further, Puscifer, whose embodiment is a curvy she-devil cartoon character, is a brand that Keenan applies to clothing and other sundries he is selling from a shop in Jerome.

Live, Puscifer pushes people’s buttons with its blend of vaudeville shtick and tent-show revivalism. Keenan portrays such characters as a crass authoritarian and dubious preacher. He is convincing in the roles, raising the question of whether he believes he could have been a police officer or a Holy Roller in another life.

“I’m a singer in a rock band, so I already am pompous,’’ he replied. “I have my soap box.’’

The touring lineup for Puscifer includes drummers Tim Alexander (of Primus) and Jeff Friedl, bassist Matt McJunkins, singer Carina Round, and guitarists Johnny Polansky and Mat Mitchell. But Keenan assured anything but a straightforward concert.

“This is more Sonny and Cher than Tool,’’ he said, pointing out that he will have different shows planned for each night at Berklee.

Mitchell handles video components that both accentuate songs and set up theatrical pieces during the show.

“Live, we’re not saying, ‘Here’s the record. We’re trying to give everyone creative space to interpret the songs and come up with something fresh,’’ Mitchell said. “At the same time, the trick is to come up with a cohesive show. It definitely has traditional rock-band elements. But once you get comfortable, we’ll pull you out of that space.’’

Musically, Puscifer veers from the work Keenan does with Tool and with A Perfect Circle. Material released thus far is heavy on throbbing, pulsating electronica. Keenan’s distinctive vocals are more spectral than messianic.

His dark humor and needling attitude toward authority surface on “Sour Grapes’’ and “Rev. 22:20.’’ But just when the temptation arises to write off Puscifer as an indulgent side project, it gets tamped down by a song of the caliber of “The Humbling River,’’ a stirring meditation that makes clear why Keenan needs yet another creative outlet.

“As an artist, I’m compelled to do things,’’ he said. “That stems from having family members who couldn’t do anything because they were mentally or physically impaired.’’

And admittedly, Puscifer is still a work in progress as Keenan attempts to turn it into a big-tent idea that involves music, video, wine, clothes, and whatever else may work. (For this concert tour, Puscifer sold VIP tickets to pre-show wine-and-cheese events.)

“I want Puscifer to have elements of it all,’’ Keenan said. “I want to step outside of the boundaries.’’

But he’s not going to abandon his roots. “Songs are such a powerful medium,’’ he said. “It’s a lot easier for me to tell the story in that medium, so I’m going to fall back on that.’’

PUSCIFER At Berklee Performance Center. Monday and Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $75, $45, $35 at www.livenation.com.