Clutch Show Review – Earth Rocker Tour: Lean, Mean, Rockin’ Machine
Clutch, 3-24-13, 7 p.m., House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, CA 92802
Tour: Earth Rocker
Set Time: 90 minutes
Attendance: Audience – 1,000+; Band – 4
Mood: Band – Equal measures of rock, rebellion and revival, poked with a stick, then set on fire; Audience – Rocking and grooving like the world’s about to end
Players: Neil Fallon (lead vocals, harmonica, occasional rhythm guitar, additional percussion); Jean-Paul Gaster (drums); Dan Maines (bass guitar); Tim Sult (lead guitar)
Special to Reviewer Magazine
by Brent D. Tharp
I remember the album Thunder Seven by Canadian rockers Triumph. In fact, I can recall nearly the entire track listing – listening to it about 100 times in succession enhances recall, even for my sometimes-addled brain. That was also the first Triumph album I ever heard. Years later, I’d finally come up with the not-so-unique idea of listening to Triumph’s entire back catalog. The point of this little memory exercise is that out of the ten studio albums, the one that really stuck with me was their second, Rock & Roll Machine. It came out when gas was rocketing up to $0.75/gallon and some odd folks were still wearing polyester and bellbottoms (my dad always avoided the bellbottoms, since they were for hippies, but he did love his polyester).
Clutch’s show in Anaheim, just five days after dropping Earth Rocker, brought me back to the first time I heard that Triumph album, and it made my skin tingle. That’s an unusual reaction when reviewing a show – typically, you sit around for hours waiting for the show to start, you eschew all alcohol, and you consciously avoid any emotional response that could cause you to dance your ass off. That response was hard to avoid on this night, however; Clutch are at the top of their game. For a band renowned for its live shows and the organic jams that tend to come from them, it might sound like a putdown to say that they were exceptionally tight and methodical. If that were the whole description, then I’d have to agree. But on this particular night, Clutch was like the vessel upon which a hurricane, a volcano and a tsunami converged, with all that energy pumped, harnessed and released, with constant energy and flow, through the machinations of a Pentecostal preacher.
Often, lead singer Neil Fallon’s persona is so large that it drowns out other players on the stage. Fallon is a magnetic front man – I’m pretty sure he could hold his own on stage with Yngwie Malmsteen, playing with amps set to 11. It’s just that in the process of being hypnotized by Fallon’s strong delivery, one can miss the subtle musical accomplishments happening right next to him. I have little fear that that will be a problem on this tour, if the Anaheim show is any indication.
House of Blues is a venue that allows more room on the stage and in the house, for the energy to be equally distributed within a band. Even so, I don’t think that’s the reason for Clutch seeming more like an ensemble than they have in the past. In my opinion, this is a carryover from Clutch’s studio work on the album. They’ve acknowledged that they put more pre-studio preparation into this album than any other, and that the time in the studio, though shorter than usual, was intense. That intensity is coming through in the live show, and it’s a big positive, especially for anyone who’s never seen the band before. And for those who’ve seen Clutch a thousand times and thinks they’ve always seemed like an ensemble onstage, don’t go all Dream Theater 1 on my ass, just take a compliment for what it is.
With that in mind, here’s what you can expect from Clutch if you go to one of their shows on the Earth Rocker tour: 1. guitar solos; 2. drum solos and shuffles; 3. no extended jams, but a lot of groove; and 4. cowbell (editorial note: these are not necessarily things one would expect at a Clutch show). Some may be saddened by the absence of any extended jams, but that would be inconsistent with what this tour, and the Earth Rocker album, is about: non-stop, guitar- and drum-driven rock n roll, in your face and without any stops (the album actually has an interlude before side 2, obvious if you listen to it on vinyl, but I think that’s an homage to the format as much as anything).
What you get in return is the familiar of Neil Fallon doing his best to save your unworthy mortal soul (I have no knowledge of this, but I have to believe that Fallon was forced to go to Sunday school). As noted above, you’ll also get a healthy dose of grooviness. That might seem to contradict a fast-moving rock show, but since most rock has blues as its base, a lack of groove is the real concern. Even on the hardest, fastest songs, the audience was shakin’ it for all they were worth (this included several fans who appeared to have reached the ripe old age of 10 or 11). Any concerns that audience members might shake their way over the balcony rails, in my opinion, were completely warranted. To what can we attribute this? I think the prime culprit is drummer Jean-Paul Gaster’s extensive use of shuffles on the new album. That drumming adds a lot of soul and warmth to even an in-your-face song, and has a primal essence that whispers “C’mon, let’s dance a little, or a lot…”
There’s another aspect amping the energy level, and that’s the crowd response to the music. Clutch are a band acutely aware of how the audience is reacting to their music and playing, whether it’s obvious or not. I had the opportunity to interview Gaster before the show, and I asked him about the audience response to the new album online and at the shows. I was a bit surprised that he was shaking his head yes to both parts of that question, an indication that just five days into a new album, the band are extremely interested in how they are connecting to the public, not just at their shows, but online as well, and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive thus far. The consistently positive reaction, I think, is giving the band even more energy, and it’s being funneled into their performances.
On to the songs.
The opener, “Freakonomics,” is a solid number from their previous album, Strange Cousins from the West. More importantly, the drum and guitar on this song are similar to those on Earth Rocker – they are leading the music. To the ear, they’re slightly ahead of the other parts – that’s not technically true, but when mixed so that is sounds that way, the lead guitar becomes the focal point in union with the drums, and the other instruments seem to be pulled along for a brutal, speed-driven freight-train ride through a fiery blaze from which there is no escape.
The second song was “The House that Peterbilt,” which is (normally) down-tempo and from earlier in the band’s history. It appeared to have been sped up, however, and Tim Sult’s lead guitar was louder than I recall it being on the studio version of this song (a fact I confirmed later). His overlays throughout seemed to be cleaner and louder, as well. Without seeing the show, I would have guessed that this song was a head fake on the way to turning the tempo back up, but the band never really slowed down at all.
“Earth Rocker” is the first of five tracks played from the new album of the same name. It’s also a song that reminds me to always be suspicious of Fallon’s lyrics. Unlike many artists, he assumes his listeners are smart enough to figure them out, and like many artists, he is intentionally vague enough to allow those listeners to reach their own conclusions if they want. Just like “Power Player,” this song is self-referential and at the same time, critical of unabashed fame and privilege. It constantly crosses the line between frankness and parody, but Fallon will not be the one to tell you exactly where that line is. While Electric Six (see Electric Six Review) would write a critical song and add the lyric “And if you’re on land, you can come and see my piece of shit band!,” Fallon would hit you with something like “Come out and see our punk band, Everyone knows we’re the best in the land.”
The intensity of the set started to build at this point, with two more songs from the new album, “Unto the Breach” and “The Face.” “Unto the Breach” is the type of song, lyrically, that has been responsible for Clutch being repeatedly mislabeled as a ‘stoner rock’ band. It has lyrics that tie in the medieval period, religion and death, space fantasy, earth fantasy, and Dr. Who, with some linkage from one to the next in terms of textual meaning. “The Face,” meanwhile, is a direct criticism of religion in the form of guitars being put to their death. As a writer, I’m personally aghast that Fallon believes guitars will get a stronger emotional response than references to Fahrenheit 451, or the story of a good old-fashioned Bible Belt Book Burning, but as a music fan, I suppose I can agree to agree. This might resolve that contradictory, and quite funny, reaction to their album Blast Tyrant: while many religious groups were quite vocal about their dislike of the album, there was a small contingent that thought Clutch to be some sort of religious band. I’d call that a confusion of lyrical type over content.
“The Mob Goes Wild” is one of my favorite anti-war songs, and it also reflects the same sarcastic thread from the band. The song has one of their catchiest riffs, and is one that gets the crowd moving, yet the message is political and deadly serious. Meanwhile, you really have to dance, you can’t help it, while you sing along to the lyrics ’21 guns, box made of pine, letter from the government sealed and signed, Delivered Federal Express, on your mother’s doorstep.’ This was followed by “Profits of Doom,” (the basis for my comment about Blast Tyrant above), “Escape from the Prison Planet,” “Abraham Lincoln” and “The Regulator.” All of these songs are from previous albums, have been reviewed extensively by the press, and were played flawlessly. Further mention of them here is unnecessary.
The next two songs were from Earth Rocker. “Crucial Velocity” has a driving guitar riff, and though the song’s video uses a car as metaphor, ostensibly named a ‘Rocket 88,’ the reference is to “Rocket 88,” the first rock song to use distortion. In many ways, it’s also a tip of the hat to Sult and the way he plays guitar, and the lyric “My Rocket 88 fastest in the land” is the tacit directive for him to play it as loud and as fast as he wants. By this point in the show, he’d already done that. Meanwhile, Jean-Paul Gaster should have been tired by this point, but instead seemed intent on increasing the fills, while attempting to break all the skins at once. “Cyborg Bette” is a hilarious song about love and confusion, about a man’s love for his cyborg companion, of course. Love, however, always has complications. It’s not my favorite song on the new album, but it’s my favorite combination of groovy riff with insane, frenetic drumming. I also believe it most accurately represents the energy and groove of the album. And yes, people may have danced over the rails on this one, though I didn’t check (better not to know about these things).
“Burning Beard” and “Mice & Gods” are two of my favorites, and were played impeccably. The closer, “D.C. Sound Attack!” deserves some special mention. Also off the new album, it’s currently my favorite from same. It’s the best anti-war song I’ve heard since, well, “The Mob Goes Wild.” Fallon’s singing literally drips with sarcasm as he switches from first person to third person, and he’s one of the only singers who can singularly overwhelm a non-stop cowbell, supported by Sult’s guitar and Dan Maines’ bass being tested to their limits. Fallon has always had a strong voice, but at times critics have commented on it being a bit gravelly. That’s not the case now. His vocals are as clean as I’ve ever heard them, and apparently it’s due to some sort of mystic tea (see this official Clutch Channel video for details):
The encore comprised “Texan Book of the Dead” and “A Shogun Named Marcus,” two classics. It was a fitting end to a solid show. If you’re in the mood for a straight-up, hard driving rock show without any frills or pretension, then Clutch will fit the bill.
1. Dream Theater – an American progressive metal band formed in 1985, arguably one of most technically proficient bands in the world. Also famous for playing songs so long and technically complex, that only their tiny niche of fans has any interest in listening to them. Their hardcore fans are identifiable by a tendency to have a visceral and personal reaction to anything that could be a criticism of “their” band, e.g., a statement that they are amazing musicians, but their music is inaccessible to the average listener, would be met with astonishment that anyone could consider their music inaccessible, or that anyone who can’t understand their music must be stupid, rather than appreciating the compliment that they are amazing musicians.