also appearing: Devin Townsend Project, The Obsessed
Express Live! Columbus, Ohio – December 31, 2017
There was a time – a simpler time not terribly many backward miles removed from this one – when I could reliably count on any concert by the groove-slinging desperados in Clutch being attended by most everybody I knew. To me, a Clutch show has always been an event, equal parts party and performance, a saucy suaree chemically engineered to make both your butt wiggle and your head bang, and, as an uncut, undistilled, damned near undeniable example of rock and roll at its most simultaneously festive and combustive, perhaps the preeminent affable, affordable, bi-annual flame to which musical Midwestern moths like me might flock. Even if, beyond the surface, all those not-so-long-ago shows might not have ever been anything particularly special, they always felt singular to me, so much so that the paucity of familiar smiling faces at Clutch’s most recent visit to my adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio – this time a rip-roaring bona fide New Year’s Eve celebration – threw me for a loop. This is more reflective of my own existence on the edge of 2018 than it is of Clutch’s. Spiffy repurposed commercial warehouse Express Live was loud and lively as usual, still filled to the rafters if perhaps not technically sold out, and I felt a downright communal vibe – odd for a band whose followers tend to break sharply into a minority camp intent on nonstop moshing* and a majority that sincerely wonders why simply grooving along to such joyous, raucous music can’t be enough – emanating from its every dusty pore.
*I can’t say I was unhappy at seeing “no moshing allowed” handbills posted all over Express, though I was, of course, highly dubious its staff of bouncers would in any way be able to enforce such an edict given Clutch’s historically amped fanbase. It ended up being a non-issue, owing, or, rather, contributing mightily, to the comparatively chill vibe I mentioned above. At one point, a random guy in the crowd – who had apparently traveled from New England to our little bit of the Third World for the experience, and was properly aghast at seeing such rampant, anti-fun propaganda – asked, crestfallen, if moshing was really “outlawed” in Columbus. I grinned and responded that, for certain shows, they might try, but it didn’t really mean anything. I kept peripheral tabs on him as the show progressed, and he certainly didn’t seem moody or worse for wear for having to “behave himself”, screaming and moving, singing and banging his head enough to equal any three other proper fans combined.
What is here billed as a “second opinion” might be more accurately and just as honestly labeled a “fifth” (or “twenty-fifth”), as this is far from the first time I’ve considered revisiting and writing up a particularly memorable show for DAE posterity. My general conception of Clutch – which can veer on a normal day between “greatest live rock band working today” and “greatest live rock band ever” depending on my hyperbole index, intoxication level, and mood – has, by this point and with the benefit of twenty years’ worth of repeated, overheated exposure, vaulted way past “opinion” and into something whose unshifting, granite permanence splits the difference between “national monument” and “natural law”. Weirdly**, cycle after cycle of sustained, fiercely demonstrated excellence – in which the band releases a rock solid to frigging magnificent new album (including, for me, 2005’s #1 and 2013’s #2 overall) every other year, then spends the interim delivering inspired performances on a near-nightly basis – has in a way inoculated Clutch’s fanbase against a full accounting of, and appreciation for, its greatness. Familiarity hasn’t bred contempt in this case – show me a rock fan between the ages of 15 and 50 with genuine contempt for Clutch and I’ll slap ‘em, hard – but it has bred some level of complacency, and that, paired with imminently understandable domestic pressures and duties as we (and me) age, have conspired, it seems, to make Clutch shows “events” only to those folks who truly share an abiding passion, and want to serve it back to the source night after night.
**Not unlike the band Overkill in the overtly metallic realm…classy, classic veteran lifers and inveterate road warriors with a combined work ethic and recorded output that put youngsters outside the 99th percentile to shame.
Those people have, and will have, their chances. I hope and suggest, with all sincerity, that they seize them. Clutch has been so good for so long that it’s entirely possible for even their most ardent fans to occasionally take them for granted. I know I have before, at least a few times, and found the seller’s remorse that washes over the properly reflective penitent in such a case to be deadly. The band just goes about its righteous business, unaffected. As if intent on delivering an object lesson on its innate awesomeness to the people of Ohio – that educated, diverse, politically tantalizing (if not always appetizing) swath of flyover country that hard rock tours are increasingly selling short but on which Clutch has always doubled down*** – 2017 marked the third consecutive New Year’s Eve that Clutch would choose to ring in within its borders. I was also present for the first of this trifecta, in Cincinnati in 2015, where the band arrived conspicuously late, substituting an extended Motorhead playlist between sets for the obligatory extra opening act. So soon after the heartrending loss of metal godfather Lemmy Kilmister, such a tribute from apparently avowed soldiers (drummer Jean-Paul Gaster wore a Motorhead shirt onstage) was not just highly appropriate but moving. The (my?) somber mood short circuited those festivities somewhat – Cincy overnights often make for deceptively long hauls – though the venue did spring for junior high party supplies and dropped, like, 100 balloons at midnight with which the assembled revelers might play beach ball and pop.
***A band that tours with the single-minded determination of Clutch doubtless has “homes away from home” stashed all across the country, but Fallon wasn’t speaking idly at the point, early in that first morning of 2018, where he thanked the crowd and remarked that, “this town has been very good to us”. Indeed, Clutch visits Columbus with a regularity that, aggressively enforced, might skirt the line of Utah’s stalking statutes – at least once a year and often more (or a 1.5 baseline if you count its inevitable inclusion in each summer’s aggravating “Rock on the Range” festival) – and packs the house every time. To wit, Clutch’s 2015 mega-tour with brigadier prog/stoner generals Mastodon was inexplicably billed as a co-headlining venture, despite the fact that, by almost any calculation imaginable, Mastodon is the bigger band. You could simply chalk that up to game respecting game and it would be impressive enough, if not for the fact that the two camps decided each night’s closing band by subjective popularity/fan density in the local market, making Columbus one of the handful of tour stops at which Clutch “closed” the show. You’ve been very good to us too, guys.
Beyond that interstitial serenade/requiem and a nice, spartan remembrance of Lemmy on the Bogarts marquee, you’d have never really known anything that night was awry, particularly not when listening to Clutch, having just led the Cincinnati crowd in its year-end countdown, slam into and burn through flash-fried cowbell fiesta “D.C. Sound Attack!” right as the metaphorical ball touched down. Fast-forward 729.9 days and a hundred miles north, and I stood in a comparatively zen-like sort of anticipation amongst an even bigger throng as the sub-Arctic wind outside sliced through shuffling, frigid clusters of the unprepared and overwhelmed like a diagonal shredder caressing unopened junk mail. My friend and I staked out a likely spot from which to enjoy the pregame programming. Openers The Obsessed delivered on an agreeably scummy, no frills rock vibe only a few stylistic degrees removed from Motorhead. I found myself oft enthralled and giddy as, for the first time in forever live, I witnessed the unfurling sonic tendrils of the prolific, hypnotic Devin Townsend Project knock open and exacerbate intriguing, backlit cracks by the dozen in the musical firmament surrounding us. “Are you ready for some semi-cheesy Canadian progressive metal?” yelled the sometime Ziltoid the Omniscient, cheekily, between songs. As it turned out, was I ever. Having spent the majority of New Year’s Eve mildly sick and trapped in a car trudging home from holiday, now pumped on a dangerous combination of adrenaline and good will towards men when I should have theoretically been running on fumes, DTP was damned near revelatory, and the nicest single surprise in an evening full of them.
“I walk wherever the weather provides” growled good-natured ringmaster Neil Fallon as Clutch took the stage, “because everyone needs some time outside.” Having moved onto the main floor by this point, where we could faintly feel five-degree fahrenheit’s worth of deviltry wafting in through the emergency exit doors to either side, Fallon’s opening entreaty didn’t move us with quite its normal urgency, though, behind him, his band was already warming up appreciably. “Give me no lip and I’ll tell you no lies,” he continued, and then, oomph, as Jean-Paul Gaster’s**** single-stroke snare roll built, built, and then catapulted the band into the headlong, sublimely named “Pure Rock Fury”. From that second forward, Clutch was as advertised, both in “Pure Rock Fury” and in the hearts and memories of its audience, a scant few of whom, if any, I’ll wager were seeing the band for the first time. Both welcome deep cuts from the band’s eponymous 1995 breakthrough, the chunky, obtuse “House That Peterbilt” segued into the berserk “Animal Farm”, and then into the first of four unidentified (to me) new songs. Clutch’s setlist is now drawn from eleven studio albums (and other collected oddities) released over the course of its 25+ years, and, chosen by each band member in turn, changes on a nightly basis. Seasoned crowd members know roughly what to expect – what scenic heights the band should want to attain – but are kept in the dark about just how they’ll go about achieving liftoff and sustaining flight. “Unapologetic lifer for rock and roll!” shouted the chorus to “Noble Savage”, happily, instantly defining us. No one I saw thought to protest.
****Wearing what, to my eyes, looked like the same Motorhead shirt he had sported in Cincy. My heart smiled at the sight. I suppose one can reasonably expect such spatial and emotional synchronicity from a DIY drum god, a joy to study and a delight to listen to, who is arguably somehow still the sturdiest yet most improvisational sticksman in modern rock.
“42 Minutes!” bellowed Fallon with a knowing grin, foreshadowing 2018’s imminent arrival. He’d return to this motif repeatedly throughout the rapidly waning night – referencing his preternatural time-telling abilities – as the clocks in our own heads wound inexorably down. Through it all, Clutch did what a world-class rock band is supposed to do: take no prisoners, give no quarter, and, for just about a solid 90 minutes, play like there was no tomorrow. For 2017, there wasn’t one. The barnstorming “Cyborg Bette” gave way to the deep groove and deeper strut of “A Quick Death in Texas”, “Crucial Velocity” and “Firebirds!” (“two songs about fast cars I once had”) made for a formidable pair, and joyful hostilities continued to escalate – concert fave “Burning Beard” gave way to neck-cracking singalong “The Mob Goes Wild” and then, in a mild surprise, the towering yet understated “The Yeti”, with its spectacular chorus about the Himalayan Mountains being Fallon’s “old time stomping ground” – as midnight approached. With its legs still under it, without breaking stride or taking a single conspicuous breath, “The Yeti” led directly into the countdown. Fallon even made it a touch funky, talking over Gaster’s loose-limbed backbeat and Tim Sult’s cacophonous guitar meltdown. We instinctively erupted at the milestone, but Clutch had already shifted gears, slamming into a far better version of “D.C. Sound Attack!” than I’d heard under similar circumstances during the dawning moments of 2016. The first forty-five minutes of 2018 were magnificent, and no one can take them away from me. Far better return on investment, I’d imagine, than your average Ryan Seacrest viewer received.
It’s not as if the rest of the show was anticlimactic – new songs and face-smacking classics intermingled like they’d been written concurrently instead of tours apart – but, for me, there’s probably no better image on which to linger, and, eventually, leave, than of Neil Fallon coaxing communication out of a cowbell while the best rock band on the planet played on behind him. Whoever you are, wherever you were – with all due respect – you should’ve been there.