Concert Review: Clutch (Three Shows)

Clutch, COC, Spirit Caravan, Clearlight
Northern Lights (Clifton Park, New York), January 18, 2001

I’ve often struggled for the right words when trying to describe just exactly what it is that Clutch offer when they occupy a concert stage. Fortunately, the title of the group’s forthcoming album lays it out about as simply and concisely as it can be explained — and an awesome display of Pure Rock Fury was indeed on display last Thursday night when West Virginia’s heaviest (musical) foursome hit Northern Lights as part of potent package tour of modern rock marauders.

From the opening riff of the anthemic “Rock and Roll Outlaw” to the final feedback whine of the evening’s closing meltdown jam, Clutch convincingly demonstrated their mastery of their chosen idiom, whatever it is that you want to call it, offering powerful, melodic, moving, complex and subtle (often all at the same time) songs — then playing them as if they’d fallen out of the adrenaline tree, hitting every branch on the way down.

The impact of Clutch’s attack, however, came not only from the energy of their performance, but also from the awesome breadth of the quartet’s eclectic musical borrowings and inspirations, whether from bassist Dan Maines’ and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster’s funk-fortified bottom, to guitarist Tim Sult’s masterful deployment of all things wah-wah and widdly, to singer Neil Fallon’s multi-faceted vocal performances, which oscillated between beefy shriek, basso rumble and didactic declamation throughout the evening.

Toss in Fallon’s incredible lyrics — some of the finest and most surreal that modern rock has to offer, with little whiff of hyperbole nor room for argument in that statement — and you’ve got as complete a rock and roll package as these ears and eyes and this mind have ever encountered, peaking with the mid-set two-fer of “Elephant Rider” and “The Soapmakers,” both of which merged poetry, passion and power in ways that most bands can’t even dream about, much less execute. Pure Rock Fury indeed, and really damn good music to boot.

The evening’s three warm-up acts paled in comparison, but when assessed objectively on their own merits certainly held up well. COC (the artists formerly known as Corrosion of Conformity) offered a sort on minimalist Metallica approach, stripping that better known group’s sound of its prog and pop tendencies, leaving giant, monolithic slabs of riff and rhythm behind. Spirit Caravan (featuring Scott “Wino” Weinrich, once of St. Vitus, the Southern California group that made it okay for a generation of ’80s skinheaded hardcore kids to like metal) played a lean set of muscular, blue collar metal that evoked a cross between Motorhead and Steppenwolf.

Clearlight opened the evening with a nifty set of instrumental jazz-skronk metal, bolstered with organ, that sounded something like what might have happened if Slayer had covered Iron Butterfly’s Ball, the New York Times‘ retro critical reference album of the year. God forbid that the hippie jam-band scene ever stumbles upon these guys, as the Dave Matthews Band and others of that ilk might be ripped to shreds as false prophets once Clearlight power-blasted the scales from the eyes and ears of their audiences.

Clutch, Scissorfight
Saratoga Winners (Cohoes, New York), November 16, 2002

Boy, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better twin-bill for a rock show than the one that Clutch and Scissorfight offered Saturday night at Saratoga Winners. Both bands’ performances just absolutely awesome, and they mined thematically similar creative lodes–although they discovered radically different sonic gems therein, tossing them out like deranged musical Carnegie heirs into the open hands, mouths and hearts of the needy mob before them.

Both Clutch and Scissorfight hail from rural parts of the country regarded for the most part by outsiders as scary or intimidating. Thing is, both Clutch and Scissorfight know that their home hamlets are scary and intimidating, and they revel in exploring and sharing the tawdrier sides of the West Virginia experience (Clutch’s area of expertise) or the more virulent aspects of life in northern New Hampshire (Scissorfight’s home base). What separates both groups from the gazillions of less talented bands poking about in the same sonic spaces is the extreme intelligence with which both bands’ songwriters explore topics usually avoided or (at best) endured, rather than thought about.

Scissorfight frontman Ironlung is a big bear of a man — but he’s a helluva lot smarter than the average bear, he is, and he devotes a good chunk of his lyrical focus on historically inspired examples of man’s savagery against man, nature, or whatever else happens to piss off man at a particular moment in his nasty, brutish life. Backed by a trio of the sludgiest sludge rockers imaginable (I mean, these guys make Queens of the Stone Age sound like Abba), Ironlung was absolutely riveting as he riled the crowd with such fabulous party singalongs as “Musk Ox,” “The Most Dangerous Animal is Me” and “New Hampshire’s Alright if You Like Fighting.” Jeez, these guys even played a G.G. Allin cover, and they played it like they meant it.

That’s ugly, that is, and that’s a very, very good thing when it comes to smart stoner rock of the flavor that Scissorfight offer. Clutch’s set was, perhaps, slightly less ugly — but just as compelling in its intensity and creativity. What Scissorfight present with sheer balls, brawn, power and volume, Clutch put forward with stupendous instrumental talent. The two lengthy instrumental workouts included in Saturday’s set (the second one, at the tail end of set highlight “Spacegrass” featuring Troy’s own Leo Curley, former axe-man with Biohazard) would have shamed any number of jam bands — but they never lost the audience while widdling, a feat pure and beautiful in its rarity. Lemme tell you: you haven’t seen a drummer play the drums until you’ve watched Jean-Paul Gaster behind the kit, and bassist Dan Maines and guitarist Tim Sult are easily the hardest playing groovemeisters in modern rock history.

Which means Clutch are extraordinary as an instrumental trio (and sometimes they open for themselves in that capacity), but when you toss singer-guitarist Neil Fallon into the mix, you move in the realm of the sublime. The man’s got great pipes, writes brilliant lyrics, and is about as charismatic a performer as you’re likely to find in metal circles. Hell, his non-microphone hand alone conveyed more emotion than most singers get from their whole soul and being, as Fallon conducted the crowd like a maestro, and created little visual pantomime stories to accompany his lyrical litanies. Had you seen him Saturday night, you’d never look at “Little Bunny Fufu” the same way again–and you’d make damn sure that you were there to see Fallon and friends perform the next time they passed through town.

Clutch, The Bakerton Group
The Chance (Poughkeepsie, New York), February 27, 2009

Ask me who the greatest live rock band in history was (or is) and I can answer definitively, authoritatively and absolutely: The Who, in their classic Daltrey-Townshend-Entwistle-Moon days. Watch The Kids Are Alright sometime if you don’t believe me. They were just unarguably great on stage. The greatest, in fact. End of discussion.

Ask me who’s number two and it gets a little fuzzier. (Don’t suggest Led Zeppelin to me, though. Watch The Song Remains The Same sometime if you don’t believe me, and see if you stay awake as the songs do, indeed, remain the same. Zzzz.) I think the greatest single concert I ever saw was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in a creepy gothic worship space on the campus of Georgetown University in late 1990 or early 1991, when Marcia was pregnant with Katelin. The grandeur of the music and the space and the company conspired to make it magical, memorable evening.

Probably the greatest ongoing concert spectacle I ever watched was the Butthole Surfers through the mid-to-late ’80s at the height of their powers, when dancers, fire, film and music merged into an overwhelming audio-visual experience guaranteed to blow your mind everytime you got to see it.

I also experienced some awe-inspiring local shows here in Albany during the roughly ten years that I was reviewing music for Metroland and hosting Sounding Board on Time Warner Cable. The Hanslick Rebellion are, I think, the best live act ever to emerge from these parts, as documented on the absolutely essential The Rebellion is Here CD recorded at the much-lamented QE2. Small Axe also moved me powerfully from the stage, as did Beef and the Kamikaze Hearts. I feel fortunate to have experienced from the pit what I think was a particularly magic moment in the metal-to-hardcore world hereabouts, when the likes of Section 8, One King Down, The Clay People and Withstand were at the heights of their powers. They were all awesome live presences, and bore true testimony to the transformative power of homegrown, hometown music.

But if you had to pin me down to naming the second greatest live rock band in history, I’d probably pick the Pride of Maryland: Clutch. They offer pure rock fury that swings, along with some of the most inspired, insane lyrics ever produced from within the rock n’ roll idiom. (Right before the first time I saw them, circa 1994 or ’95 at the QE2, then-fellow Metroland scribe Tom Flynn recommended them to me by saying: “The craziest shit comes out of that guy’s mouth.” And he was right.) I think I’ve seen them eight or so times since then, and every show has been bigger and better than the one before it.

Last weekend, Marcia was out of town, so I was out looking for a movie to watch and picked up Clutch’s brand-spanking new live DVD, Full Fathom Five: Field Recordings, 2007-2008. Like The Kids Are Alright, it’s filled with just mind-blowingly powerful performances. Marcia’s also a Clutch fan, so when she got home, I watched the DVD again with her, and she noted she’d like to see them in concert sometime, having never done so. I went online to see if, perchance, they might be touring anytime soon, and lo and behold, we were delighted to see that they were playing at The Chance in Poughkeepsie Friday night.

So we made a quick post-work run down to the Mid-Hudson to watch Neil Fallon, Tim Sult, Dan Maines and Jean-Paul Gaster work their magic, first as their alter-ego instrumental jam-band, The Bakerton Group, then under the Clutch brand. The group has stripped back to the basics after a few years of touring with a keyboardist and occasional supplemental guitarist. For most of the show, Sult, Maines and Gaster handled all the instrumental fire, with Fallon picking up his guitar for some numbers later in the set.

The instrumental trio, as always, were all about getting down to the business of the groove: while Gaster got occassionally animated behind his drums, Sult and Maines were heads down over their guitar and bass, flexing their prodigious musical muscles. Frontman Fallon offered the riveting stage presence that made things explosive and electric. He’s got a physical, declamatory Old School Preaching style that makes you want to shout “Amen” and throw your hands in their air everytime he pauses for a breath.

It was an awesome show by a great, great, live rock n’ roll band, and I’m glad Marcia finally got a chance to see them whip an audience into a frenzy up close and personal. Don’t miss ’em if you have a chance to catch ’em. They’re something special.

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