Tuesday, March 26, 2013
The Regency Ballroom
Better than: Snake-handling in a tent revival.
Twenty years ago, when Clutch was a young band of metal kids from the D.C. suburbs, they cranked out a few records that displayed a fondness for big guitar, fast songs, and eccentric lyrics. It was good old rock 'n' roll, led by a singer, Neil Fallon, who even then had the fire and brimstone in his voice. People called them a rock band, and then they got weird.
Beginning with their much-beloved self-titled album, Clutch, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, and Fallon, started playing with blues jams, funk, fuzzed-out stoner sludge, and a D.C. strain of call-and-response dance music called go-go. Fallon's lyrics explored mythology, conspiracy, and strange mouth-noises. After that, people didn't have any clear idea what to call them.
This basic inability to define the band may have contributed to its never making the big-time, despite touring relentlessly with other bands on the way up (once, many moons ago, I saw them open for an up-and-coming rap-rock band called Limp Bizkit and knew there was a great disharmony in the universe). So, over the years, Clutch did its thing, toying with pacing and theme and sound, and gathering about it a devoted fanbase, mostly white males who dressed blue-collar, down to the beards and tattoos.
Every now and again the band would toss off a straightforward rock song, one per album or so, as though yielding to the convention of having at least a single "single" before tearing off in some new direction. It was clear they could make that kind of music that pushed other bands to prominence; they just didn't seem very interested in it.
But so now, two decades later, they've put out a new record, Earth Rocker, and it's a Rock Album. It doesn't feel like they did it to finally appease popular taste or some industry bigwig -- they produced it on their own Weathermaker label, after all -- rather it seems they just finally felt like doing it. Like maybe making straightforward rock was the strange thing to do in these unclear musical times. Artifact, protest, or joke, the album is very good, a channeling of what is great, what has been great, about rock 'n' roll.
Carrying the traditions and practices of rock into public assembly, Clutch's concert at the Regency Ballroom last night was clearly intended to stir up those old energies of yore. Opening with "Pure Rock Fury" sent the crowd into that old familiar sing-along churn. The beards may be grayer, the tattoos may have faded, but this was all holy territory. Barn-burners "Profits of Doom" and "The Mob Goes Wild" followed, leading into the title track from the new album, in which Fallon, ever pointing at the crowd, exhorts us: "If you're gonna do it, do it live on stage / or don't do it at all."
Now what's interesting about a Clutch show is that the pacing of the songs is often disruptive, disorienting even. Sure, a pit will form as the song thrashes along, people will nod their heads to that thick bassline, but then it'll change up, suddenly start hitting on the downbeat or something, and you'll find you're bobbing your head out of time like some damn fool. Or the pit will suddenly discover that they've been raging to a song that's actually a much slower jam, and the hive-mind will become confused and sluggish -- that rock beat was just an oasis in a much more complex song.
With the Earth Rocker tour, these rock oases, so to speak, are bigger. There's more of that straight-up stuff to keep your head-bobs in time, to keep the dancing bangy. Still, it's worth going to a show, finding an elevated vantage, and observing the dynamics of the crowd for peculiar phenomena: Only at a Clutch show will you see a pit go from thrashing around to milling about.
(Side note: The first time your correspondent ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms was at a Clutch show in Austin, Texas. Upon finding myself in the eye of the pit, I reflected that it felt very much like what being in the center of an atom must feel like. I thought that there was some shifting, secret center, and that there was a way to move with the energy of the pit such that you could stay in that center and never be hit by anyone else, that they'd just flow around you. I had no luck finding such a thing, was thusly battered, and so added nothing to the sum of human knowledge save for another link in the chain of drugs and popular music.)
Novelties of the current tour include Sult taking up acoustic guitar for the album's one slow number, a somber blues jam called "Gone Cold," in which Sult does a neat little trill on the chords. Up in the balcony, the very-stoned settled deeper into seats, a look on their faces exactly like what you'd see through the driver's-side window of someone piloting an RV through the high desert, say in spring.
Another first: Fallon taking up the all-powerful cowbell for a song called "D.C. Sound Attack," which once again calls upon go-go, that funky sound embodied by Chuck Brown and whose influence seems not to have extended more than about 30 miles beyond the Beltway, for pop music anyway.
The recurring go-go motif is one of those things that paradoxically ties Clutch to a particular place, yet to many musical strains. Perhaps this is a reminder that "rock 'n' roll" is itself no single thing. The difficulty in defining Clutch may be that it is simply a band that is more open to exploring its influences, aware that it's always going and never just there.
Strange tributes: In a display of total misunderstanding or total enlightenment, someone threw onstage during the show a tote bag of recently purchased Clutch gear. Fallon picked it up, regarded it, and said, "Thanks for the free Clutch merchandise. Just what we always wanted."