Concert Review: Arlo Guthrie (Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York, November 24, 1996)

I wasn’t really keeping track, but I’d wager that Arlo Guthrie spent as much time talking as he did singing during his Sunday night show at the Music Hall. This was fitting, of course, since Guthrie’s best known song, “Alice’s Restaurant”, consists of a couple of sung choruses wrapped around a spoken word retelling of the (so-called) Great Thanksgiving Massacree that went down in Stockbridge, Massachusetts some 32 Turkey Days ago. Arlo performed that golden holiday chestnut at the end of his first set, complete with the addenda from his 1995 album Alice’s Restaurant — The Massacree Revisited , which made the song even more subversive and even more hilarious and (of course) even more lengthy than the 18:20 original. But I don’t think you can get too much of “Alice”, although Arlo might disagree with me on that count.

Guthrie’s between-song story-telling was just as hilarious. We heard his poem, “Mooses Come Walking”, after learning how NAFTA had caused an increase in moose spottings around Western Massachusetts (where Guthrie lives). We heard about how the Beatles seemed to have it out for Arlo, releasing Sgt. Pepper on the same day he released the original Alice  — then releasing the first of their Anthology disks on the same day the updated Alice was released! We got a full year’s worth of classic gut-bustin’ quotes: “If people walk away happy, then you’ve told ’em the truth”; “Anybody can get up here and finish a song” (after interrupting “Ukelele Lady” in mid-stream); “If this sounds like a James Taylor song, it’s ’cause he was sitting there when it was written — and I had the pen”. It’s been quite some time since I’ve laughed so hard at a performance that wasn’t billed as comedy. Come to think of it, though, it’s been quite some time since I’ve laughed so hard at a performance that was billed as comedy. Go figure.

On the musical front, Arlo played guitar and harmonica and keyboards (as usual) and received supportive accompaniment on keys from his son, Abe. The evening’s first set focused on older guitar-oriented material, so Abe — who sat with a Mona Lisa smile throughout the evening — was left to provide bass-lines and synth string filigree. The second set found the duo spot-lighting material from their recent album Mystic Journey, which allowed Abe to shine on material he was involved with, creatively. “When a Soldier Makes It Home”, “Doors to Heaven” and “Wake Up Dead” showed that the Guthrie skill at social commentary remained as strong as ever, while “Under Cover of Night” showed that Abe could hold his own with his dad: their linked voices were simply astonishing together (Abe has none of his dad’s nasal twang, possessing a clear bell-like tenor instead) and Abe’s propulsive keyboard work lifted Arlo’s deft finger-picked guitar figures into a dynamic new sonic plane.

It was ultimately magnificent and moving when the Guthries finally closed their second set with a singalong version of “This Land Is Your Land”, written by Arlo’s late father, Woody Guthrie. I, for one, am tacking “The Guthrie Family” onto the list of things for which I’m going to be thankful this holiday season, as I don’t think I could bear the thought of either a musical or a material world that didn’t ring with their wise and wonderful songs. Thanks, Arlo and thanks, Abe, for reminding me of that fact.

The Clay People: A Bio by J. Eric Smith (1996)

Daniel Neet: Vocals
Brian McGarvey: Guitar
Mike Guzzardi: Guitar
D. Patrick Walsh: Bass
Dan Dinsmore: Drums

Many bands can lay claim to melodic sense, but The Clay People are one of the rare and precious few who can craft a melody — then play it like they’d just boosted themselves with a dirty adrenaline needle straight to their collective heart. Need proof? Then score and mainline the Upstate New York quintet’s hammering self-titled fifth record, which marks the ensemble’s SlipDisc Records debut while also documenting the creative rebirth of a one-time electronic outfit who have unveiled the underlying truth, strength and magic latent in their music via a powerful, new, all-organic line-up.

That creative rebirth didn’t come as the result of an overnight, media-driven, hype-fueled cram and jam session, however — but rather as the culmination of a decade-long musical search by founding vocalist Daniel Neet. The Albany, New York native was first inspired to take up the microphone by such consummate dark-pop frontmen as Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, Berlin-period David Bowie and Peter Gabriel at the height of his hyper-surrealist powers. Neet organized the first incarnation of The Clay People in the late ’80s to provide a forum for his own ambitions as an audience-mover of the Murphy/Bowie/Gabriel persuasion — although in the group’s early days, his literate and charismatic offerings were presented atop an all-electronic, Skinny Puppy-inspired musical substrate.

Despite the limited instrumental assault power of those early Clay People shows, the larger-than-life Neet’s effectiveness as a vocalist, scene agitator and on-stage ringleader quickly earned the group a dedicated following-not to mention the regular gigs that helped finance their first recordings. After their first two independent records (1991’s synthpop-leaning Toy Box and 1993’s Ministry-flavored Firetribe), however, Neet began looking for new directions — eventually connecting with kindred-spirit guitarist Brian McGarvey, who would play a key role in the reinvention of The Clay People’s approach and sound over the ensuing years.

“I was DJ’ing in clubs regularly back then and Brian would be up in the booth with me a lot of the time,” Neet recalls. “Eventually we started talking and thinking about how we could assimilate and work with the groove-based aspects of the club music we liked. And we went a couple of directions with it: Brian joined The Clay People for our 1995 album, Iron Icon (Cargo/Reconstriction), which was still heavily electronic, although Brian’s guitar work began to erode some of that mechanical feeling. Then he and I also did a project with two members of Acumen Nation called Iron Lung Corporation that had industrial and dance elements, but was again more machine-driven than organic.”

“After the tours to support those projects, Brian and I set off on our own to see if we could make our music feel more natural, to make it less cold and let other people hear all the heart that we felt like we were putting into it,” continues Neet. “We basically felt like we really needed to warm The Clay People sound up a bit because we were just hitting a dead-end with all the sterile-sounding electronics. So for the next record, Stone: Ten Stitches (1997, Cargo/Reconstriction) we were trying to find a midpoint between something like what the Chemical Brothers or Lords of Acid were doing and something like what Tool were doing. And that was definitely a step in the right direction, because I think our songwriting really began to mature there — but we finally realized that what we really needed a live rhythm section to interpret what we did electronically if we were to do the songs justice.”

Neet and McGarvey’s first recruit was guitarist Mike Guzzardi (who had already co-authored standout track “T.M.S.” from Stone: Ten Stitches). Guzzardi, in turn, helped the band recruit drummer Dan Dinsmore and bassist D. Patrick Walsh to complete the Clay People’s definitive — and defining — line-up in 1996. The quintet quickly retooled the best of The Clay People back catalog, adding a heretofore unimaginable muscularity and propulsive energy to the mix, while also developing a strong body of new material collectively crafted from within the band’s rapidly-cohering musical consciousness.

Response to the newly-reborn Clay People’s ferocious, yet surprisingly groove-oriented live attack was instant and largely ecstatic. And that ecstasy was catching: after a year of nearly non-stop music-making, word of band’s prowess reached the Chicago offices of influential cybercore and metal label SlipDisc (now a Mercury Records affiliate), who signed the band to a multi-record deal in late 1997. Four months later, The Clay People departed for El Paso, Texas to record their first SlipDisc record with help from Christ Analogue keyboardist Wade Alin and esteemed producer Neil Kernan (Queensryche, Nevermore, Kansas) behind the board.

“Neil Kernan chose the studio — out in the middle of a pecan farm in the middle of a desert — because he’d done a lot of albums there and liked both the sound and the focus that the isolation forced on bands,” explains Neet. “And he really helped us complete The Clay People formula during those sessions, taking our hooks and our directions and making sense of all of them, pulling the best out of all the musicians and helping us to make that next step with our material and our performances. He was very natural after spending years in the studio working with so many different bands, so I felt like I had gone to a class on how to get a band to write and perform its songs together by the time we were done.”

The quintet formally marked their creative rebirth with an eponymous album released in May 1998. The Clay People was rightly hailed upon its issue as the most important record to emerge from Upstate New York’s fertile and fervent hard music community, with lead single “Awake” quickly making national waves after its appearance on the Dee Snider’s Strangeland soundtrack. Stylistically, The Clay People featured an incredible array of melodies and riffs, all delivered with the same palpitation-inducing boost that defined the group’s live shows. Neet’s lyrics also demonstrated a new-found poise and maturity throughout The Clay People‘s run — detailing the ups and downs of the human (or non-human, in the cases of Neet’s undead or cyborg protagonists) experience with an acute eye for pathos and absurdity, detail and design, horror and humor.

“The material on this album really represents who The Clay People are, as both a band and as five individuals who become something greater than the sum of our parts when we work together,” Neet observes. “The energy and the communication between us are just incredible. And I really think that because of those personal connections and because of our willingness to tap what’s inside us-not only the nervous, aggressive, angry, destructive things, but the thoughtful, intuitive, creative, constructive things as well — we’re making music with longevity. You’re still gonna want to listen to this stuff ten years from now. And we plan to be around then while you’re doing it.”