Clutch aren’t strangers to these parts, having gigged at The Agora and Odeon before graduating to larger venues as its audience expanded with 2001’s Pure Rock Fury, 2004’s Blast Tyrant, and 2005’s Robot Hive / Exodus. They opened for Flogging Molly at Nautica / Jacob’s Pavilion two summers ago, played Rock on the Range in Columbus in May, and sold out the House of Blues Cleveland on its last jaunt through town.
But Monday’s HOB return was a testament to how far the Maryland bashers have come in two decades, both artistically and commercially. The Euclid Avenue club was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, with nearly everyone in attendance eager to reciprocate the quartet’s muscular musical energy despite a twice-announced “zero tolerance” policy against stage-diving and body-surfing. So the club warmed quickly, pungent body odor mingling with the faint-but-fragrant hint of herb, and the folks on the floor soon comprised a gyrating maelstrom whose movements synchronized tightly with Clutch’s metronomic brio.
Fronted by raspy-throated Neil Fallon, the band stormed through a hundred-minute set leaning heavy on material from their latest full-length, Earth Rocker. Clutch performed nearly every song on the widely-acclaimed album, forsaking popular oldies like “Ship of Gold,” “Mice and Gods,” and “Profits of Doom” to update their faithful.
It wasn’t exactly a gamble. The majority of Earth Rocker is as solid as anything Clutch has recorded to date, so the cudgel-heavy concert wasn’t lacking in heft, volume, or passion. The album’s release last Spring marked Clutch’s highest Billboard chart debut ever, and the disc (issued on the band’s own Weathermaker label) appears near or at the top of many year-end best-of lists by Village Voice, Loudwire, Noisecreep, and other trades. Metal Hammer U.K. named it their #1 pick for 2013.
Moreover, Clutch has a reputation for mixing it each night, offering a custom set list at every stop, shuffling classics from 1994’s Transnational Speedway League and 1995’s eponymous Clutch with fresh fare for maximum effect. It keeps everyone on their toes, enlightened and entertained. And if the boys didn’t get to your song this time out (I was waiting for “The Mob Goes Wild” and “1000110101”), just revel in the memories of the unique running order from December 30th and cross your fingers for next time.
Clutch scored a string of alternative rock hits in the early 2000’s, with videos for songs like “Burning Beard” receiving mainstream attention. The four-piece excels at combining gargantuan guitars riffs with elastic rhythms and intriguing carnival barker vocals. No low-brow misogynist party time rock or “hey baby” power ballads here. Even if it all might seem like grease monkey music to the uninitiated, the Clutch canon is all about turbocharged guitar riffs and whimsical subject matter that often seems yanked straight out of college textbooks on literature and world history. The band is atypical even for a hard rock / metal act, what with Tim Sult’s wah-soaked guitar leads, Jean-Paul Gaster’s masterful drumming, Dan Maines’ undulating Rickenbacker bass grooves, and Fallon’s playful, maniacal psycho-preacher delivery.
Striding onstage in green cargo pants and black 9:30 T-shirt, Fallon roared into “Sea of Destruction” (a gem from 2002’s rarities compilation Slow Hole to China), winching his way through a travelogue of beggars and lechers before uncapping the first of four in a row from Earth Rocker.
Judging from the vociferous call-and-response shout-alongs, everyone at HOB was already intimately familiar with the disc, keeping pace with Fallon and the gang on rambunctious robot-dominatrix ditty “Cyborg Bette” and grinding Shakespearean time travel adventure “Unto the Breach” without difficulty. They pumped fists to the sequestration-skewering “D.C. Sound Attack” as Fallon huffed on a harp and thwacked a cowbell, deriding the “hellhounds…in Necro City” whose backroom deals make us pay. “Oregon” found Fallon’s flustered backwoods narrator (another of his many endlessly fascinating personalities) “enslaved as a circus freak” after makes “a ruckus with a succubus.”
“Wow, you guys aren’t just throwing bottles of beer—you’re throwing boxes of it,” Fallon greeted his excited minions.
“Thanks for the drinks, but we’ll just order our own!”
You won’t hear Lady Gaga singing the praises of ribonucleic acid, Hadron colliders, Occam’s razor, the Yeti, or Scylla anytime soon—but Fallon’s got a talent for twining “Fire it up!” rallies with obscure references to mythological heroes, scientific principles, and forgotten historic locales. He’s a front man for intellectual head-bangers, dropping verses that—on first blush—will set even the most avid Clutch listener Googling to discern the meanings behind his professorial prose. In that respect, Fallon reminds us of another lyricist named Neil who drums for a certain Canadian power trio.
But Fallon strapped on a guitar for “Soapmakers” and stayed pinned to the microphone while unleashing the pioneer paean’s loping, dual seesaw riff with Sult (who nursed a Les Paul and prodigious pedal board). “Regulators” was the sole “swinging pendulum” on offer from Blast Tyrant—but another medley of Earth Rocker mayhem sated onlookers. “The Face” chronicled the confiscation and reclamation of rock and roll culture (with thousands of Jazz Master guitars becoming transfixed holy relics), the tune’s thunderous Black Sabbath strains booming in the hall. Conversely, the subdued “Gone Cold” had Sult noodling on an acoustic as Gaster quietly circled his snare with gentle brush strokes. Fallon occasionally chimed in between verses, bending strings on his Gretsch White Falcon while Maines’ lumbering low notes mimicked the desperate footfalls of the song’s snowbound pilgrim.
The band cranked the volume to skull-crushing levels again (what’s this about db limits?) on “Crucial Velocity,” adrenalizing the crowd with a nod to the cars and distorted guitars of a bygone era (namely, the Oldsmobile memorialized on Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” widely hailed as the first bona fide rock record). “Book, Saddle, and Go” alternately trotted and galloped—not inappropriate for a track about a Wild West fugitive hiding from “murdering bastard” vigilantes out to string him up.
The foursome reached further into their pockets late in the set, serving up 1995 cuts “Animal Farm” and “The House that Peterbilt” to uproarious approval. Trailer park caper “50,000 Unstoppable Watts” prompted the chant of “anthrax, ham radio, and liquor!” The swampy, stomping “Gravel Road” borrowed liberally from Mississippi Fred McDowell’s lyric about a love-struck country boy pining after his curly-haired girl (much to her parents’ chagrin).
Washington, D.C.’s Lionize opened with a blend of Southern rock / reggae jams that were both competent and engaging. The group’s been around for ten years, issuing stoner-ska albums like Space Pope and the Glass Machine and Destruction Manual under the wings of their Clutch mentors—who sometimes play along with them.
Now guitarist Nate Bergman is officially on Clutch’s Weathermaker roster, with the first Lionize album on said label set to drop next month. The band hosted on online scavenger hunt before the holidays, allowing fans to guess the title of the new disc as teaser puzzle pieces from the sleeve were posted day-by-day. Finally, on Christmas, the artwork for Jetpack Soundtrack was revealed in full, along with a digital stream of lead-off single “Reality Check.”
Bergman and friends played that track and more during its half-hour stint, with Henry Upton’s bass thumps locking in with Mel Randolph’s articulate drumbeats. Keyboardist Chris Brook hunched over bank of synths and organs stage right and added backup vocals. Bergman tweaked a Les Paul, his sizzling licks channeling Carlos Santana and Warren Haynes. Think Burning Spear and Bob Marley meet Allman Brothers—that’s Lionize.
New York groove rockers Into Another assumed middle slot duties. The band wallowed in relative obscurity in the 2000’s after releasing a couple well-regarded LPs on Revelation Records and Disney’s Hollywood imprint. But singer Richie Birkenhead recently reconvened his crew to further the promise of their Seemless and Ignaurus glory days, serving up throwbacks like “Poison Fingers,” “While I Die,” and “Drowning” for early-arrivers.
Clad comfortably in jeans and a blue-collar work shirt, the bearded Birkenhead was augmented by virtuoso guitarist Peter Moses, bassist Reid Black, and longtime drummer Drew Thomas (ex-Crippled Youth). The guys gave a shout out to absentee guitarist Brian Balcheck, who’s presently dealing with family tragedy at home, and the HOB audience was respectful enough to voice its prayers and spiritual support.
Conjuring magic on a black Les Paul, Moses looked and sounded not unlike Peter Frampton, albeit with added shred and pyrotechnics.