During the first few songs of Friday’s Clutch show at New York’s Irving Plaza, I glanced up at the balcony and spotted an unexpected sight. A kid of no more than 12, accompanied by an older chaperone, was singing along to every word of “Gimme the Keys,” the first track off the veteran hard-rockers’ new 12th LP, Book of Bad Decisions. Checking in periodically, I saw that he was doing the same throughout the set, whether the band was playing a Nineties classic like “Escape From the Prison Planet,” a mid-career staple like “The Mob Goes Wild” or a newer favorite such as “Firebirds!” His example drove home a key fact about this 27-year-old Maryland quartet: Young or old, there’s no such thing as a casual Clutch fan.
Early in their career, you might not have singled out Clutch as a band likely to be active and thriving more than a quarter century later. They first showed up on many listeners’ radars via the video for “A Shogun Named Marcus,” the lead track from their 1993 debut, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths, released on major-label subsidiary EastWest after a pair of hardcore-informed indie EPs. That mouthful of an album title gives some indication that even at this early stage, when the band’s harsh, staccato riffs placed them in league with contemporaries such as Helmet, they were coming at heavy rock from a highly eccentric standpoint.
“Yes, I’m a New World samurai, and a redneck nonetheless,” frontman Neil Fallon roared on “Marcus,” before spouting off the Little Richard–meets-Cinderella refrain “So Beebopalloobopawopshamboo / And domo arigato if I got to” over a walloping post-hardcore groove. The track was a minor classic of early-Nineties alt-metal weirdness, but it didn’t exactly lay out a blueprint for how Clutch’s sound might evolve.
It was on the band’s next two albums that fans started to get a sense that Clutch might be hanging around for a lot longer than many of their early-Nineties peers. A self-titled 1995 LP and 1998’s The Elephant Riders scaled back the aggression of the debut, while inviting in funk-derived swagger courtesy of bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, and spacey psychedelic textures from guitarist Tim Sult. Meanwhile, Fallon delved further into his surreal lyrical universe, mashing up pop-culture kitsch, literary allusion, fringe conspiracy theory, and sly nods to history both real and mythological. Clutch‘s “Texan Book of the Dead” finds him in typically out-there form:
So, you say you want to go to heaven?
Well, I got the plans
Kinda walks like Sasquatch
But it breeds like Kubla Khan
In original dialect, it’s really quite cryptical
There are many copies around
But this, my man, is the original
Fan response to the band’s mid-Nineties evolution was mixed. But as Fallon pointed out in a 2010 interview, these albums attracted newer, more open-minded listeners that would stick around for the long haul. “I remember when we put out [Clutch], there was a lot of people that suddenly said, ‘Oh this is a different band. I don’t know if I like them anymore,'” he said. “But for every one person that left, two came into the picture. … You’ve got to be able to grow and change.”
Since then, Clutch have slowly, steadily refined their sound. Blast Tyrant, from 2004, introduced an acoustic folk/blues element that came to full flower on the 2007 fan favorite “Electric Worry”, which borrows from Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More”; Robot Hive / Exodus, from 2005, welcomed in keyboardist Mick Schauer, who would stick around for a few years and also work with Clutch’s instrumental alter ego, the Bakerton Group; and 2013’s Earth Rocker, the band’s second studio LP on its own Weathermaker Music imprint, found the quartet zeroing in on a compact, ass-kicking heavy-rock aesthetic — inspired in part by tours with Motörhead and a reunited Thin Lizzy — that they’ve stuck close to ever since.
Earth Rocker‘s title track (on which Fallon sings, “If you’re gonna do it, do it live onstage / Or don’t do it at all”) also doubled as a kind of manifesto for a band that had by then spent two solid decades on the road. In that time, Clutch built up a reputation as a tireless, internationally beloved live act, known for no-fuss shows that have gradually taken on a quasi-religious fervor. This quality stems from both the intense devotion of fans who relish the band’s blue-collar commitment to nightly excellence and to Fallon’s increasingly magnetic, preacher-like charisma in front of an audience. (Clutch fandom now reaches a yearly apex at the band’s very own Earth Rocker Festival, held at a family-owned outdoor venue in West Virginia.)
On record, Clutch are reliable; onstage, buoyed by their fun-loving public, they’re unstoppable. The biblically bearded Fallon comes on like a combination MC and carnival barker, bringing the songs’ characters to life with a vocal range that ranges from a menacing roar to a grittily melodic belt. Gaster drives the band with consummate jazz-informed looseness, syncing instinctively with Maines’ massive throb and Sult’s richly textured retro fuzz. In the crowd, you’ll see as much grinning and blissed-out grooving as moshing.
On Friday, at the first of two planned NYC stops on Clutch’s current U.S. tour — Saturday’s set at Irving Plaza was canceled due to a Fallon fainting spell — the band opened with Book of Bad Decisions deep cut “Sonic Counselor.” Where “Earth Rocker” had been Fallon’s tribute to his band’s dogged determination and staying power, this track pays homage to the DIY community that springs up at each of Clutch’s gigs:
Ferocious women and ill-tempered men
We’re not that picky ’cause we take ’em all in
We fuss and fight and spit and cuss
Look no further, you have found the right church
Near the end of a set that ranged from the raging (Transnational’s “Marcus” and “El Jefe Speaks”; “X-Ray Visions” and “Sucker for the Witch” from 2015’s excellent Psychic Warfare) to the reflective (Book of Bad Decisions closer “Lorelei”), Fallon let the congregation know how vital its sustained support remains to the Clutch enterprise. “We don’t take this for granted,” he told the crowd. As he walked offstage before the encore, he grabbed the set list off his monitor and presented it to a tiny kid in the front row who was even younger than the fan in the balcony.
These days there’s a lot of hand-wringing about the ultimate fate of rock, as if there were any single satisfactory answer to the question of whether the genre is headed for extinction, or whether it died out long ago. But attending a Clutch show insulates you from all that. Upon entering, you’ll step into a room full of die-hards — 12-year-olds, fiftysomethings and everyone in between — each confident that they have, undoubtedly, found the right church.