With “Earth Rocker” released to the world, it stood to reason that Clutch would blaze a trail across the United States bringing their blend of rock and roll and swamp blues to the masses nationwide. This tour was especially poignant given Clutch’s asserted desire to unequivocally return to their rock roots and re-establish themselves as the preeminent rock band in the U.S. With Neil Fallon’s admission that “Earth Rocker” and “Blast Tyrant” producer Machine was in attendance on this night, expectations were high. Along for this part of the ride were Orange Goblin and Lionize.
We begin with Lionize, the young upstarts from Silver Spring, Maryland. It seemed remarkably apropos that another stoner rock band from Maryland would be on the bill, as a throwback reminder of how Clutch got their beginning. Lionize not only employs the full-bodied guitar tone of classic acts like ZZ Top, Norman Greenbaum and Edgar Winter, but has the on-stage attitude that Clutch had as a younger band a decade ago. It’s a common affliction of young opening bands that they waste time talking, but Lioize simply rolled from strength to strength, producing a keyboard-infused surge of classic rock-tinged sound that was many times larger than their modest stage set. They stormed through cuts like “Dr. Livingston” and never let go, capturing the imagination of the early crowd with a combination of deep-seated guitar, good band chemistry and strange lyrics. They even took some time out for a stage wide jam with Tim Sult of Clutch and Jo Hoare of Orange Goblin, which can be a momentum killing decision, but was kept contained and worked well. The crowed, with the exception of the guy to my immediate right who appeared to be asleep standing up, enjoyed Lionize in a way that suggested their curiosity had been piqued.
This leads us to Orange Goblin, a powerhouse band from London who visually presents many different images just by virtue of taking the stage. The rhythm section looks to be all old-school tattooed speed metal, but Hoare on guitar gives off an early era Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin vibe.
Then there’s Ben Ward. The man combines the imposing stage presence of Peter Steele with the affectations of both Lemmy and Ozzy. He mixes in some Chuck Billy air guitar, and simultaneously blends all of that with the enthusiasm of former pro wrestler Al Snow. As you can imagine, it’s a near impossible conjuration, but it’s highly effective for a lead singer.
Orange Goblin is one of those bands who is whispered about in metal circles, popping up just frequently enough that attentive fans know the name, even if not much else. Anyone unfamiliar at the beginning of their set bloody well knows them now.
As Orange Goblin hammered out sludgy heavy metal like they were born for it, the crowd grew increasingly enamored. Each riff that issued forth was like a grand wave, flattening the audience with unbridled power. Keeping a mental inventory of their set was like constantly updating a telethon’s running total – every song they played was their best of the night. Most pits rose, took shape and filled as fists pumped in accord and the band unstoppably rolled on. Ward led his band through a heady forty-five minutes, blasting through “Round Up the Horses” and other notable cuts like “Stand For Something.” When the dust had settled, the upset alert was on- Clutch was going to have to put on a hell of a set to be better than Orange Goblin.
I have been privileged enough to see Clutch seven previous times in the past ten years. I have seen them good, bad and indifferent. One of their shows in 2004 at a tiny venue in Ithaca, New York called The Haunt may be the best show I’ve ever seen. I am constantly reminded of two divergent impressions; the hungry, furious tempest of a band that sweated out “Pure Rock Fury,” and the casual, jam-friendly band that appeared for “From Beale Street to Oblivion” and the surrounding era. I always wonder what band I will see on a given night. Given “Earth Rocker” and all that it portended, I was more curious than ever.
Over time, the most notable change to a Clutch show has been the crowd. Formerly composed of metal meatheads, power-thirsty rock fans and most pit instigators, the crowds have become more genteel over the years. Hipsters, hippies, people in khakis, stoners, skaters, a handful of bros (based on pieces of conversations I overheard,) and thankfully some women populate the gathered masses now, evidence of Clutch’s extended reach. Each segment was there to see a different aspect of the band’s underground iconic career.
With producer in tow, Clutch opened with several “Earth Rocker” cuts, and promised to play each one by night’s end. Something was off. It was more than just the peeking gray hairs and Tim Sult’s fatherly stage presence. There was some punch missing, like a relief pitcher had been thrown in without being given proper time to get loose. We got to “Gravel Road,” which was an incredible surprise, but the back half of the song was extended into a small jam, eschewing the natural power of Clutch’s original cover. Shortly following was “Mob Goes Wild,” but the edges were rounded, Fallon’s bark just a little reserved and Sult’s guitar silkier than is customary. At this point, I was really concerned. Was it possible that Clutch would never again channel the raging energy they used to utilize so easily?
Fire began to light in the eyes of Fallon, which first showed for an excellent “Profits of Doom.” As they got back into “Earth Rocker,” things started to come into anticipated form. “Unto the Breach” was better live than on disc and the same goes for “Child of the City.” Everything after that went as scripted or better, the new cuts in particular coming to virile life. Eventually the encore arrived, and this is where Clutch left their mark, with a raucous “Crucial Velocity” and the best “Electric Worry” into “One Eye Dollar” I’ve heard to date. Their parting shot was among their best.
So, for those keeping score, there was nothing from “Pure Rock Fury,” no self-titled album (including the mysterious absence of old standby “Spacegrass,”) and for the old-schoolers, no “Impetus.” That band may not appear regularly again, but this Clutch is pretty good, too. Certainly, they’re improved over the band we saw for the last four or five years.
While Orange Goblin equaled the headliner on this night, that’s more a credit to the opener than anything else. Clutch may not be the raw band they were, but can still be compelling in maturity. Orange Goblin drops off the bill at this point, but Clutch hits the road again soon with the incredible The Sword picking up, so you’re getting a valuable double-bill no matter what.