By Adrien Begrand
There’s blue-collar, and then there’s Clutch. If it wasn’t for the brassy funk of Chuck Brown and the Soulsearchers’ “We Need Some Money” that precedes their live set, neophytes would think nothing of the four nondescript fellas who amble onstage in t-shirts and jeans, drummer taking his seat in the shadows, the faces of guitarist and bassist obscured by ball caps, the latter spending the next couple hours looking down fussily at his Les Paul and effects pedals, and bearded lead singer greeting the crowd politely, almost shyly. But the people who do know Clutch are well aware of the pure rock fury that kicks into gear once these everymen take their spots. Within seconds, all holy hell breaks loose, Tim Sult letting loose riff after wicked blooze rock riff, Dan Maines and percussionist extraordinaire Jean-Paul Gaster backing it up with the most powerful rock rhythm section you’ll ever hear, and the inimitable Neil Fallon carrying on like a man possessed, his baritone bellow a far cry from his understated entrance.
Rooted in hardcore, purveyors of classic 1990s stoner rock, and now latter-day masters of a hard rock/stoner/jam band/blues hybrid, Clutch’s path has definitely been the less traveled one over the past couple decades, but all that hard work recording albums and touring relentlessly has slowly built the Maryland foursome into quite a force in the music world, to the point where they can chart in the top 40 with each new release and draw crowds in the range of 1000 on a consistent basis across North America. They’re the ultimate road dogs, their constant changing of set lists, heavy improvisation, and encouragement of freely-traded live bootlegs bringing a welcome Bonnaroo feel to the OzzFest crowd.
The most fun aspect of any Clutch show is that you never have any idea just what they’re going to play on any given night. On this warm, muggy prairie evening, the emphasis was more on the bluesier aspect of Clutch’s oeuvre, the opening cover of Chester Burnett’s “Who’s Been Talkin’?” quickly transforming the near-capacity venue into a sweltering juke joint. After throwing old-school fans a bone with scorching renditions of “The Elephant Riders”, “Slow Hole to China”, “The House That Peterbilt”, and new gems “50, 000 Unstoppable Watts” and “Struck Down”, the foursome dug their heels in and conducted a 20 minute exercise in continuous groove that formed the meat ‘n’ p’taters of the show. The raucous “Escape From the Prison Planet” segued into the shuffling “Raised By Horses”, gliding seamlessly into “The Yeti”, which in turn led into the ferocious “Burning Beard”, Gaster acting as musical director throughout, his solos and fills so fluid that one could hardly tell where one song ended and where the other began.
Clutch’s current musical incarnation, which dates from 2004’s Blast Tyrant to this year’s Strange Cousins From the West, has been a remarkable creative renaissance, with blues superseding stoner rock, and not surprisingly, when the final third of the show focused on the newer material, things truly took off. “Child of the City” and “The Amazing Kreskin” swung contagiously, Fallon got his Otis Taylor on in a big way on the dirge-like “Abraham Lincoln”, and “The Mob Goes Wild” brought the house down. Meanwhile, the encore of “Let a Poor Man Be”, “Electric Worry”, and “One Eye Dollar” book-ended the swampy opening brilliantly, Fallon complementing Sult’s rhythm riffs with lead slide fills.
With Georgia’s great Baroness forced to leave the tour a couple nights prior, it was up to Sult’s side project Lionize to provide the main support, but their blend of reggae and stoner rock quickly felt interminable, the music tight but rarely memorable (okay, “Strange” is ace, I’ll give ’em that), frontman Nate Bergman too introverted, the crowd polite but restless. However, the same cannot be said for Regina’s own Orbital Express, whose workmanlike blend of Kyuss, Fu Manchu, and good old space rock quickly had the place jumping, the pair of hesher guitarists shredding away, the gregarious, afroed drummer/vocalist making like Don Brewer circa 1971, delivering propulsive beats and howling away on such incessant tracks as “Space Station Fornication” and “March to Mars”. Tailor made for Rise Above or MeteorCity, these boys have a future. Somebody sign ’em.