The cult of Clutch was out in full force Friday, filling the Town Ballroom to capacity, and celebrating the wonderfully weird heaviness of the Maryland stoner metal icons with fist-pumping enthusiasm.
Never heard of Clutch?
Well, that’s part of the fun for the band’s fans, who are quite content to bask in the group’s underground status – Clutch is their band, and those who keep their eyes focused on the upper reaches of the pop charts aren’t necessarily welcome at the party.
This was not a party for the popular kids, then. But what a party it was.
Led by frontman supreme Neil Fallon, the band is one of the most distinctive in the past two decades of metal, a time when Clutch perfected the art of stoner rock – a subgenre with a silly name, yes. But when you hear the gorgeously lumbering tempos, monster grooves, psychedelic-tinged riffs, and mild aspects of hardcore in the vocal phrasing, you realize the moniker is an apt one.
On Friday, following well-received sets from fellow thunder-beasts the Sword and Crobot, Clutch hit the ground running – or at least Fallon did, despite recent spinal surgery, which led to postponement of this Town Ballroom show, originally scheduled for several months back.
The other three members of the band – guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster – favor a stoic, impassive appearance; these guys are focused on creating a serious wall of sound, and they leave the stage antics to Fallon, who struts about the boards maniacally, gesticulating wildly and looking his audience dead in the eye, like some sort of half-crazed preacher run amok at a truck stop in the deep south.
The combination of Fallon’s charismatic stage presence with the thundering dynamics of the musicians is awe-inspiring, and a mere minute or so into opener “Earth Rocker,” it was easy to understand the fanatical devotion of the cult of Clutch. A blues-tinged grind melding a hazy psychedelia to bludgeoning riffs, the tune is the title track from the band’s most recent effort, which made the year-end top 10 lists of dozens of prominent metal critics in 2013. It’s visceral, eminently powerful stuff, and it was delivered with both precision and skull-rattling volume.
An early highlight can in the form of “Crucial Velocity,” a song that name-checks seminal rock ’n’ roll tune “Rocket 88.” Here was a prime piece of Fallon-esque theatricality, driven home by the dazzling, thick, distorted and wah-wah-heavy playing of guitarist Sult, who didn’t raise his gaze from his fretboard the entire evening, and frankly, didn’t need to – his was a masterful swirl of high-volume virtuosity requiring full investment.
“50,000 Unstoppable Watts,” “Sea of Destruction,” “The Regulator” – all displayed Clutch’s uber-tight ensemble sound, delving into periodic psychedelic jams and improvised sections, and moving in lockstep through tricky and clever progressive rock changes. One could easily have played a game of “spot the influence” – a bit of Thin Lizzy here, some Hawkwind over there, a dash of Motorhead giving way to the face-melting complexity of Tool, and so on – but part of the brilliance of Clutch lies in the band’s ability to stir up a gumbo of its own design.
The Sword, a four-piece from Austin, Texas, offered a crushing opening set drawn mainly from its most recent effort, “Apocryphon.”
The twin guitars of J.D. Cronise and Kyle Shutt were particularly impressive, as they moved between meaty unison riffs and astute harmony lines. The Sword’s brilliance lies in its ability to channel the primal sludge-riffing of Black Sabbath, and the band locked into a down-tempo groove from the outset. This is music that demands its adherents to bang their heads in time, and the packed Town Ballroom acknowledged that demand willingly. The Sword has a good relationship with Buffalo audiences, built upon a pair of sweaty shows at the late and lamented Mohawk Place over the past several years. After Friday’s gig, we can add a third killer Buffalo show to that list.
The youngest band on the bill, Pennsylvania’s Crobot, gave the elder statesmen a run for their money with a set described by one concert-goer as “the nastiest groove-metal I’ve heard this side of Soundgarden.” High praise, and well-deserved. This is clearly a band to watch for fans of the aforementioned Soundgarden, as well as Wolfmother and Queens of the Stone Age.
It has indeed been a long dry spell for Buffalo area metal fans. We haven’t had an unmissable metal show in these parts for the better part of a year. But Friday’s stellar triple-bill was well worth the wait.