also appearing: All That Remains Lifestyle Communities Pavilion, Columbus, Ohio – July 26, 2014
Clutch gets it. Clutch knows what rock & roll is, what it has been, what it’s supposed to be. They are a breath of pure, bracing oxygen in a smoggy, dire musical landscape. Whenever I hear internet denizens grumbling about the latest rap, folk or foundational country act elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, part of me is very sympathetic, no matter how much my musical palette might have expanded in the years since it was first forged. The music I love most dearly has always been Rock & Roll (capital R, capital R, for emphasis), which is to say the distorted, amplified blues of The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and Cream, the tasty licks and unshakeable groove of AC/DC and ZZ Top, the crowd-pleasing bombast of Queen and Kiss and Van Halen, the intensity of Hendrix and The Who, or the blue collar impact of Springsteen and Bob Seger and The Ramones. Rock & Roll is a gargantuan umbrella (covering punk, metal, prog, rockabilly, and dozens of other variants), a vast musical continuum comprised almost exclusively of detours. The simple act of naming the thirteen artists above still highlights enough stylistic variations among the ostensibly like-minded to make the well-intentioned historian consider removing his hair by the fistful, spontaneously, but the foundation for all of them is similar.
Would that our current musical environment, so fragmented and niche, had multiple popular rock bands that even approached Clutch’s caliber*. I would have much greater hope for the future. Clutch’s most recent album, its tenth, is titled Earth Rocker, and is worthy of any capital R Rock designation. Catchy and relentless, it was easily my #2 album of 2013, regardless of genre, and, indeed, was hard rock that in my eyes technically outmuscled every metal album the year had to offer (and that was a particularly top-heavy group). As if that wasn’t enough of a mission statement, Clutch’s fifth album was (unironically) titled Pure Rock Fury, and their 2004 album Blast Tyrant, the rare Clutch long player to boast both unimpeachable quality and quantity**, has the distinction of being my second favorite rock album ever.*** Clutch in a live setting is truly a thing of ripping sonic beauty, and whenever the band comes to town, I’m generally there to greet them. I’ve seen Clutch at least twenty times now, in five states, as opener and headliner, in venues tiny, mid-sized and inappropriately cavernous, in a converted fraternity house and outdoors in a monsoon. Clutch is among the safest monetary investments in live music today. They deliver absolutely every time, and, to my thinking, were the only plausible reason to visit Columbus, Ohio’s first annual “Smokeout” festival. No, that name doesn’t mean what you think it means, at least not officially. I was mistaken initially too.
*I’ll grant you Foo Fighters, and Queens of the Stone Age, Muse (under some protest), The Black Keys and even Jack White, now that he’s making solid, interesting solo albums and not just flitting from side project to project. Beyond that, the cupboard seems a bit bare. I love bands like Flogging Molly, The Hold Steady, Japandroids, and J. Roddy Walston and The Business, but they are still really only up and comers within the grand scheme, as are Clutch, despite great albums and impressive credentials as road warriors. Still, this is the most inspirational music on Earth to my ears. The next big thing may already be gestating in a Midwest garage as we speak.
**Most Clutch albums tend to meander a bit and only have the quality aspect (i.e. standout songs) in abundance. “Blast Tyrant” and “Earth Rocker” are the two that get the mix exactly right, in my opinion.
***My number one is “Powerage” by AC/DC. Bon Scott + Angus Young + exquisite songs and variety = untouchable.
I’m no great fan of outdoor music festivals as a rule, engineering as they do a shotgun marriage between perhaps my single favorite thing ever – live music from a beloved artist – and a veritable shortlist of my least favorite things ever – oppressive heat, incessant standing, obnoxious drunkards, crippling boredom, and live music from eighteen (or so) bands I either can’t stand or have no opinion on. The people watching is generally a decent diversion, but my concert-going patience for and tolerance of extraneous bands began unraveling about a decade ago, coincidentally enough at almost the exact moment I stopped being twentysomething. Now it is perilously thin. The “Smokeout” (again, not what you were thinking) lineup boasted six bands in total: three openers I’d never heard of, tacky but plucky nu-metal survivors Bobaflex, melodic metalcore train wreck All That Remains, and Clutch. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, mine or anyone’s, but with thunderstorms in the forecast, extensive pre-show entertainment featuring five bands I cared not the least bit about, and amphitheater grounds assuredly swarming with fans of those last two non-entities in particular, I resolved to arrive as fashionably late as possible.
My approach worked like a charm. I met two friends at Columbus’ A&R Bar, a capital R Rock watering hole (seriously, I’d love to “borrow” some of the concert flier art that adorns its walls for my own) that adjoins the L.C. Pavilion, some 4.5 hours after doors opened. All the downscale openers were, by that time, already rapidly dissipating memories, and all that remained was, well, you know. All That Remains indeed remained on stage for entirely too long****, and the changeover time between their set and Clutch’s seemed interminable. When Clutch took the stage around 9:30, they owned it as immediately and thoroughly as they ever owned Ground Zero in Spartanburg, SC, or Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC, the Bijou in Knoxville, TN, or Southgate House in Newport, KY. Beginning with Blast Tyrant’s pointed radio hit “The Mob Goes Wild” (a song that often comes much later in the set), Clutch burned through an opening salvo of songs – “Earth Rocker”, “Crucial Velocity”, “Pure Rock Fury”, “Cyborg Bette”, and perhaps my favorite of theirs, “Texan Book of the Dead” – that was as sustained a block of force and intensity as I’ve ever seen them deliver. Clutch settled down for but a moment – bringing out ominous Old West ballad “The Regulator” at about the 1/3 mark and eerie Earth Rocker tone poem “Gone Cold” at the 2/3 – and otherwise kept the focus where it should be, on their hallmarks – Tim Sult’s dynamic guitar riffs, Jean-Paul Gaster’s miraculously fluid and jazzy drumming, and the massive groove the two create in concert with underrated bassist Dan Maines and bellowing hypno-vocalist Neil Fallon.
****I remember that brief flash of time when All That Remains was an above average melodic death metal band, even if 99% of their current fans, who it must be said greeted them rapturously, likely do not. The rise of metalcore, first with Shadows Fall and then with Killswitch Engage, who seem to be ATR’s most abiding current influence, really threw this band for a loop, and hitching their wagon to that star may have made ATR successful, although it seems to have come at a steep price. I checked out when, as their fourth song, the singer introduced their (self-described) recent ballad “What if I Was Nothing”. The rest of their set was a non-stop procession of cheap insults running through my head, and no audience entreaties of, “You guys wanna hear something HEAVY?!?!” could possibly derail me. Ugh.
In Clutch’s earlier days Fallon was not just a magnetic singer but a ringleader, a presence onstage capable of whipping a crowd into a frenzy with a throwaway gesture. Indeed, some of the roughest mosh pits I’ve seen or experienced have inexplicably been at Clutch shows. I understand it in theory, especially given that the crowd is such a cross-section of skater, stoner, punk and metal scenes, but since I’ve always considered Clutch’s music joyful above all else, the fact still never ceases to perplex me. At the “Smokeout”, Clutch was in effortless command from the outset, and maintained it perfectly throughout the 90-minute set. Middle aged Fallon seems to have mellowed a bit. He’s not as demonstrative as he once used to be, back when he affected the feel of a Viking chieftain girding his charges for impending battle. If anything, his amused, consistently engaged posture, with no mouth froth visible nor any decline in his abilities as a vocalist, is refreshing. Not everything in the heavier realms of music has to play as some kind of an overt threat. I’ve always thought it’s more effective to just keep your mouth shut and let the music do the talking. That is what Clutch does onstage. That’s the essence of what Clutch is onstage.
Clutch is an old hand at capital R Rock & Roll now, of course. The band is so talented that it can summon musical ferocity without breaking a sweat, and though it boasts a significant metal component (particularly in Sult’s guitar work, which, to me, strikes the sweetest spot possible between Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi), what the band is most consumed with, and has been for years now, is simple, inescapable groove. Without question, Clutch is a band out to move you – your butt, your neck, both at once, and whatever else is connected. As the greatest and, really, only highlight of the Great Columbus Smokeout (well, other than the cute but odd girl who felt me up as I walked past her, through the concession area toward the muddy lawn), Clutch was a resounding success, but, then again, they always are. Not even the inevitable (thankfully, minor) rain could dampen my enthusiasm. If this Smokeout festival (seemingly named not for Marijuana, though it was surely detectable in the crowd, but rather for an assortment of barbeque stands that had apparently already closed up shop by the time I arrived) is to become an annual event, may I suggest the addition of more capital R Rock next year, and maybe a little more thematic unity, instead of droning hours of anonymous, time-filling background noise – in effect, music to refill your $8 beer to? It’s an imperfect idea. I definitely know who I would want to headline though.