Clutch at Roundhouse, LondonSupport: Valient Thorr| Lionize
December 15, 2016 at Roundhouse, London
It’s coming on Christmas, and in the final week of a long European tour, Santa Clutch is coming to Town, setting up store at North Pole of Camden, the Roundhouse.
Opening this present, the gift tag on the outside if you like,are Lionize who roll up in the distinctly un-Christmassy get-up of Hawaiian-shirt camo – a sort of tourist-survivalist look that suggests a bunch of bewildered good ole boys who’ve tumbled out of a Ford Ranger on Hapuna Beach. But their self-effacing charm is undeniable, and they strike up with an amiable mix of hard rock and junkyard funk, a sort of funk ‘n’ roll with a bit of rap and dub thrown in, that quickly wins over the sizeable audience. Musically, there’s nothing jaw-dropping here, save for Chris Brooks’ sweet-sounding Hammond that has the authentic swell and swagger of Purple or Spookytooth, but it’s irresistible to dance to. Lionize may not be the mane attraction, but to their credit, they claw in the audience from the bars and the merch tables and end the set to an appreciative full house.
And now for the ribbon… Valient Thorr may not have dusted off the Christmas jumpers yet, but frontman, Valient Himself, has donned the scarlet Santa boots to complement the double denim, and they match a treat. The look is enhanced by the early decision to ditch the waistcoat and he spends most of the set bare-torsoed, looking for all the world like an undercard grappler at a smalltown wrestling promotion – only rather more stoner than Stone Cold. It’s a curious hybrid: imagine Joe Cocker and Iggy Pop, only without the vocal dexterity of the former or the sculpted abs of the latter. That said, he can move like Jagger and positively revels in the space afforded to him by the former engine shed, appropriately going loco with lunges and high kicks, plus a few rounds of press-ups thrown in for good measure.
The music itself is unremarkable heavy rock, but songs like ‘Mask of Sanity’ and ‘Goveruptcy’ are humorous and insightful, the incisive lyrics inspired by the colander-helmeted paranoia that has become chillingly real in the light of Trump’s election. It’s an enjoyable spectacle, though it does briefly trip over its own feet with a misplaced tribute to “our old pal, Lemmy”, and a number that frankly isn’t fit to buckle the great man’s boots.
After that, the set drifts ever more into Spinal Tap territory with a back-to-back guitar duet that’s verging on parody metal, but manages to stay just the right side of 11 in a performance that’s certainly valiant, if not quite heroic. But in a world where so many of us complain that there too few characters left in rock music, Valient Himself delightfully kicks against the pricks.
And so to the big present itself, and to their credit Clutch don’t waste any time with the tease of pass-the-parcel style wrapping… They just tear off the paper and tear into ‘The Mob Goes Wild’… and it certainly does, with the surprisingly lively mosh spewing several fans into the photography pit before the Frederick foursome have barely played a bar of the follow-up, ‘Struck Down’. The Roundhouse is heaving now, not just bursting at the sides but kicking out the (door) jams, the entrances are so crammed with folk trying to lean in. And such a variety of folk… I don’t think I’ve ever been to any gig where such an array of T-shirtery has been on display: from Slayer to Status Quo, from Mastodon to Mono, and everything in between, every shade of metal and rock you can think is on show somewhere in the vast crowd. And it’s this incredible broad appeal that defines the band… Everyone, it seems, loves Clutch; and in turn, they provide an all-points meeting place for fans from a myriad of genres.
On stage, the four-piece are even more lo-fi than I was led to expect, with, it seems, barely enough kit to trouble the sorts of saloons or roadhouses in some of their infamous videos. And this relative moderation is also reflected in their stage persona, which is so inward looking as to be more stonefaced than stoner – the glorious exception being frontman Neil Fallon who knows how to play a crowd with a belter of an overdriven blues-rock voice that beggars belief. No matter how many times you’ve heard the albums, nothing can prepare you for the tantalising tone of this snake charmer – this preacher-man with a god-given larynx of rich, gravelly fruitcake steeped in a honeyed bourbon. He is, quite simply, the Tom Jones of stoner, and one of the two reasons that Clutch are special.
Unsurprisingly, the other reason is lead guitar, Tim Sult, assuredly a guitarist’s guitarist, whose shoegazey (almost statuesque) stance, though alienating on occasions, is the completely truthful public face of musician locked into an internal conversation with his muse. And while it would be easy to talk of his playing as beautifully understated, that would be misplaced – nothing here is minimal but rather it is perfectly stated, with every hook, every riff and every break having just the right amount, and combination, of notes and no more. At it’s best, it’s sublime.
The tour itself is billed as supporting Psychic Warfare, but this seems a little incongruous given the album is now over a year old, and sure enough the actual set-list pays it scant regard, including only three of its tracks in a programme that is much more of a Clutch back-catalogue mix-and-match, full of old favourites like ‘Immortal’ and ‘The Face’. It’s a tasty enough fare, but when they hit ‘Cypress Grove’ and that awful “fallen soufflé” moment that too many bands endure around the 45-minute mark, I find myself tiring of a hit parade of radio-edit length tracks and the inevitable drift to a set on autopilot.
Their saviour comes in the form of Lionize’s diamond, Chris Brooks, whose guests on keys for the legendary ‘100011110101’ and ‘Escape From the Prison Planet’ and proves something of a revelation, simultaneously grounding the band and taking the music to another level. Indeed, it adds so much to the combo that I can’t help feeling the (re)addition of a permanent keyboard player would be a natural step in their next evolution, in which case they should look no further than fellow-Marylander Brooks such is his affinity with the ensemble.
Even without him, the inspiration of his injection lingers on, and the quartet hit new heights with ‘Spacegrass’, quite the trippiest moment of the evening, a classic track harking back to their space rock and psychedelia influences. And what an acid beast it is, one that puts you in touch with their true stoner essence, a little bit other-worldly and unafraid to boldly go; one which touches on prog and a desire to explore and stretch musical form that nothing else in the programme gets close to. It is the highlight of the evening, which leaves me and good many others wanting the trance to go on.
But it’s not to be, and instead, we’re snapped back Into reality with a hasty rendition of ‘The Wolfman Kindly Requests’ before a brusque “goodnight” and, after barely more than an hour and a quarter, an empty stage.
As codas go, this one feels brutal and bolted on – not so much a slipped clutch, more a slam into reverse; not really a destination we’ve travelled to, more plummeted towards.
And it gets more curious still. We all know bands like to force an encore by leaving the stage deserted for a minute or two… But after five minutes, the stage is still empty, the house lights are up, and the audience is somewhat bewildered. Finally, after more than six minutes, the quartet reappear, with more than a hint of a walk of shame about their entrance. This quite unnecessary longueur has sucked some of the life from the evening, and though Fallon himself gives offers us a serious dose of musical Viagra with some scintillating slide guitar on ‘Electric Worry’, the champagne has lost its sparkle.
They finish with ‘X-Ray Visions’ and a salute to the mosh faithful who have creditably kept the ring revolving without let-up. But if Fallon really had X-ray eyes, he would surely have seen that the back of the gallery was where it was really going on… Two guys in Christmas jumpers, and draped in fairy lights, singing and dancing in their own Clutch karaoke world. Now that’s what I call the Mob Goes Wild!
“London, it’s been one hell of a party!” Fallon grins, with a final wave. And yes, it’s been a very convivial occasion… Just a tad disappointing the hosts called for the carriages some time before the guests were ready to leave!