Live Review: Clutch’s ClutchMas at Starland Ballroom in New Jersey, Dec. 30, 2019

Clutch (Photo by JJ Koczan)

Saw a high-speed chase between a sedan of some sort and a NJ State Trooper on my way to the show, and the guy actually got away, so it seemed fated that Clutch would play “Crucial Velocity.” Clutch are, of course, an institution. Clutch at Starland Ballroom, likewise, and that’s actually an institution that pre-dates the Sayreville venue itself, going back to the Birch Hill Night Club in Old Bridge. I suspect I wasn’t the only one thinking of those days last night as the Maryland groove overlords broke out “Passive Restraints” at the start of their set and followed up later with other nods to their pre-turn-of-the-century catalog in “A Shogun Named Marcus” from 1993’s debut album, Transnational Speedway League: Anthems, Anecdotes and Undeniable Truths, “Escape From the Prison Planet,” “Spacegrass” and “Texan Book of the Dead” from their landmark 1995 self-titled, and the title-track and “The Soapmakers” from 1998’s third LP, The Elephant Riders.

Spliced in among these and the aforementioned “Crucial Velocity,” from the more recent Earth Rocker (review here), were “The Wolfman Kindly Requests” and “Earth Rocker” from that same 2013 album — which I think it’s fair to say at this point defined their sound for this decade — and “X-Ray Visions,” “Firebirds,” “A Quick Death in Texas” from its 2015 follow-up, Psychic Warfare (review here), “Willie Nelson,” which appeared on 2003’s Slow Hole to China, “Burning Beard” from 2005’s Robot Hive/Exodus (reissue review here), the just-about-have-to-play-at-every-show “Electric Worry” from 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion (reissue review here). The older material was welcome, and the crowd, likewise older, was certainly able to keep up as drummer Jean-Paul Gaster, bassist “Crucial” Dan Maines (who doesn’t actually have that nickname, but nonetheless deserves it), guitarist Tim Sult and vocalist Neil Fallon bounced around their discography. But 2018’s Book of Bad Decisions (review here) was given some representation as well in “H.B. is in Control,” though perhaps that full-length was edged out in favor of 2019 singles “Evil” and “Fortunate Son” — covers of Willie Dixon and Creedence Clearwater Revival, respectively — the latter of which finished the set after “Electric Worry” in the encore and was listed as “John Fogerty’s Mosh Pit,” because, well, you’re in Central Jersey. That’s gonna happen.

The room was filled with familiar faces, from the Clutch crew to the longtime denizens in the crowd, and even the bright-eyed kids from WSOU — still too young and perennially bright-eyed to sue their dogshit host university for decades of discrimination and mismanagement — knew that they were in for a good night, whether it was their first experience seeing the band or not. As regards rock shows, you’re going to have a hard time getting better than Clutch, in any case, and the traditional holiday tour, which wraps tonight in Philly for New Year’s Eve, was given a special subsection this year called ‘ClutchMas.’ Three shows in Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Philadelphia, with three sets and no repeat songs between them — with the presumed exception of “Electric Worry,” which, again, they play at just about every gig. With a backlog of records as deep as Clutch have amassed over the better part of the last 30 years, I have a hard time imagining it was even really a challenge for them to put three such setlists together for 54 total songs, but a holiday celebration is a holiday celebration. You go and you celebrate. If you’re feeling saucy, as I was, you buy the t-shirt with the crab on it.

It was something of a long haul to get to the point where Clutch actually took the stage, with local openers Bound Alive, who played a style I can best describe as “Jersey metal,” followed by Damon Johnson, who under the stage lights kind of looked like an alternate reality healthy-living version of Matt Pike and went out of his way on stage to explain that he toured with Clutch as a part of Thin Lizzy and, in addition to his solo work, was in Brother Cane in the long, long ago. Those two were followed by Nashville’s The Steel Woods, whose twangy country rock stylings made their Allman Bros. cover — was it “Whipping Post?” well of course it was — seem somewhat inevitable. A smorgasbord of not-my-thing, and I was reminded that last year at this time, Clutch were touring with The Obsessed and Devin Townsend. My fault for moving back to New Jersey too late to take advantage of that, but I’ll take what I can get.

And the goal of the night was seeing Clutch, so you know, worthy cause and whatnot. There was a bit of a stumble as “Firebirds” got going, but they smoothed it out, and though I’m always a little surprised at how fast they play “Spacegrass” on the occasions they do it live, I’m also always surprised when I listen to the self-titled and it’s more uptempo than when I hear it in my head. I have a tendency to slow things down. I chalk it up to being old and more than a bit slow myself. But I recall the last time I was at a Clutch holiday show at Starland was maybe 2008, and it was a much different vibe than that, the band having morphed out of their organ-laced blues-heavy leanings in favor of a more pointed and rocking approach on the whole — more a balance shifted than the abandonment of the blues altogether, certainly — and they simply dig what they do, which is offer an utterly essential vision of what heavy rock and roll can and should be on a professional level, marked by classic songcraft and righteous performances that, in terms of playing the game they play, there isn’t another act out there to match them. Clutch do their own thing, on their own terms, and their accomplishments over the course of their career speak for themselves. All you have to do is show up to listen to them do that.

I left Starland fat and happy as one should be after a good holiday meal and made my way back north on wet roads that before climate change would’ve probably been frozen, “The Soapmakers” still reeling on the mental jukebox. Especially for a Monday night, they made it a party, and there was never a doubt it would be anything but. It’s Clutch, being Clutch. I dare you to find me a better way to cap a year than that.

Thanks for reading.

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One Response to “Live Review: Clutch’s ClutchMas at Starland Ballroom in New Jersey, Dec. 30, 2019”

  1. Mark says:

    “It’s Clutch being Clutch”. Nuff said.

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