A mixed bag of a crowd at House of Blues in Boston, and between Mastodon, Clutch and Graveyard on the three-band bill, it’s not much of a surprise. One can draw a thread easily enough from one to the other to the other, but the reality of watching them on stage makes plain the differences between them, emphasizing Graveyard‘s ’70s boogie, Clutch‘s bluesy groove and the noodly progressive overload of Mastodon, who were the evening’s headliners. Accordingly, there were those who were there to see one or the other. Kids for Mastodon, dudes who look like me for Clutch and/or Graveyard, metal heads, rockers, whatever. I wouldn’t call it diverse exactly, but not everybody had a beard.
“The Missing Link Tour,” as it’s been dubbed, started just over a month earlier, mid-April in Minnesota, and it will end in Columbus, Ohio, on May 24. With a week to go, maybe the three bands were thinking “home stretch” or “last throes,” but if so, it wasn’t evident from the crowd. Big Business did the initial couple weeks, but Graveyard stepped in on April 29 for the rest of the run, and they were a major draw for me. I hadn’t seen them since the beginning of 2013 and knew they had a new album in the works, so was hoping for some yet-unreleased material in the set from Swedish retroist forerunners, and got what I came for in a driving, one-int0-the-next mix with tracks culled from 2012’s Lights Out (review here), their landmark 2011 sophomore outing, Hisingen Blues (review here) and even their 2007 self-titled debut.
It was “As the Years Pass by, the Hours Bend” as the sole inclusion from the latter, and while Lights Out cuts “Seven Seven,” “Hard Times Lovin'” and “The Suits, the Law and the Uniforms” represented the latest outing, and “Hisingen Blues,” “The Siren,” “Buying Truth” and finale “Uncomfortably Numb” the second album. A full set, maybe, an opening one nonetheless, and as much of an impact as the Gothenburg four-piece of guitarist/vocalist Joakim Nilsson guitarist Jonathan Ramm bassist Truls Mörck (who played guitar on the self-titled and is returned to the band handling low end) and drummer Axel Sjöberg have had on the course of European heavy rock — Sweden abounds in ’70s riffing and much of it is Graveyard‘s fault — they stood almost in a horizontal line on stage with Clutch and Mastodon‘s gear behind them. For what it’s worth, from that opener’s position, they also put on the best show I’ve seen play and I’ve seen them four or five times now.
Their new album, yet untitled, is due in the fall, and the new song they played from it was called “Shunken.” A big question as regards their sound is whether they’ll stick to the tonal warmth of their output thus far or, à la their Nuclear Blast labelmates and countrymen in Witchcraft — whose roots also trace back to the mid-’90s nexus outfit Norrsken, whose demos and compilation tracks beg immediate reissue — if they’ll attempt to modernize their style, sacrificing aesthetic to center on songwriting. Hard to tell live, but “Shunken” had an evening’s worth of shuffle packed into its relatively brief course, so I’d say Graveyard‘s Graveyardery is alive and well at least as far as that song goes. Lights Out was a moodier offering, and “Hard Times Lovin'” brought that to bear on stage between “Buying Truth” and “The Suits, the Law and the Uniforms,” but Nilsson‘s growth as a vocalist was evident in how thoroughly and soulfully the material was nailed, and their set provided a reminder that one of the joys of watching them play is how much it seems at any moment like the songs are going to come flying apart and how tight the band shows itself to be when they never actually do and everyone comes back together on the next measure.
As I’m sure they have all along their time on tour, Graveyard won over the crowd at House of Blues. Clutch, on the other hand, had the room from the word go. They’ve also got a new record coming this fall, in September, specifically, and they’ve been brandying around new songs either from it or not for a while now, titles on YouTube clips like “ZZ,” “Energy Weapons,” “Motörhead,” “Sucker for the Witch,” and so on, popping up whether or not that’s how they’ll actually be titled when the recording hits. Their last outing, Earth Rocker (review here), was hands-down the best release of 2013, and the rock-solid, semper-professional four-piece of frontman Neil Fallon (interview here), guitarist Tim Sult (interview here), bassist Dan Maines (interview here) and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster (interview here) have obviously taken steps to ensure the follow-up arrives sooner than the four years it took for Earth Rocker to answer 2009’s Strange Cousins from the West.
Knowing a different member picks the setlist each night, I never see Clutch play that I don’t wonder whose choices they’re running through. I wouldn’t hazard a guess this time, but I’d like to send them a thank-you card for including “The Regulator,” a perennial favorite, and “Cypress Grove” from 2004’s Blast Tyrant, from which “The Mob Goes Wild” and “Profits of Doom” were also aired, the latter coming late in the set prior to “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” from Earth Rocker and a finale of “Electric Worry/One Eye Dollar” from 2007’s From Beale Street to Oblivion. New cut “Son of Virginia” seemed directly in bluesy conversation with both “Electric Worry” and even more so “The Regulator,” but emerged into a heavier push from its subdued, twang-laden bounce, Fallon less the preacher than he is at times but no less imperative in telling the crowd, “You gotta know your history/Son of Virginia,” in the chorus. A faster new song, titled “Monsters” according to the setlist, boasted Earth Rocker-style thrust and shout-outs to the Cyclops and other creatures out of mythology, very much in Clutch‘s wheelhouse.
Something of a surprise to think it had been more than a year since I last saw them play, that show in New Hampshire Fall 2013 following Fallon‘s back surgery — gotta know your history — but they were, as ever, engaged in the delivery of a sound quintessentially their own and seemingly unbreakable. They are among the finest and most enduring live acts of their generation, and I didn’t envy Mastodon having to follow them. That said, there was a point at which I couldn’t go more than two weeks without having to put on Clutch, and after not seeing them for so long, I wondered if the spell had been broken. Nope. Still very much a Clutch fan, as it turns out, and can’t wait to hear the new record, from which “Our Lady of Electric Light” was the third and final song to be aired, quieter and moodier even than “Son of Virginia,” but easing well into “D.C. Sound Attack” and its extended jam driven by Gaster‘s well-established percussive brilliance and unflinching funk.
There’s been footage kicked around online of Fallon joining Mastodon during their set for “Blood and Thunder” as he did on the latter’s 2004 sophomore breakthrough, Leviathan, but it wasn’t to be. My evening was pretty much over when Clutch finished, but I’ll say that while I’ve seen Mastodon hit and miss live — back-to-back nights in Brooklyn with Neurosis in 2008 come to mind as examples for both — they were absolutely on fire at House of Blues, and while they lost me years ago as they traded in the visceral rhythmic push of 2002’s Remission and the subsequent Leviathan — what was, at the time, a genuinely new take on sonic heft — for the progged-out technical showcasing of Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye, I did my time as a Mastodon fan, had a nostalgic moment when I saw a dude walking through the crowd in the same Leviathan t-shirt I wore to my wedding reception, and it was fun to watch them kick ass across material new and old, be it “High Road” from last year’s Once More ‘Round the Sun or “Megalodon” from Leviathan.
And while I don’t really follow them at this point — obviously hasn’t hurt the band any, if their draw is something to go by — they put on a more than solid show, laser beams emanating from the stage and all as Bill Kelliher held his guitar aloft, drummer Brann Dailor held down the cleaner choruses of new songs, guitarist Brent Hinds tore into those or that solo and bassist/vocalist Troy Sanders skirted a line between cartoonish metal frontman and genius conceptualist in the middle of the stage. They didn’t become the band they were expected to, but they obviously became the band they wanted to be, which is more admirable in its way. When their sprawling encore of “The Czar” from Crack the Skye was done, Dailor got on mic and took a moment to profusely and sincerely thank the crowd before handing out his drumsticks and a drum head that had apparently been busted during the course of the set. One imagines he goes through them on the regular.
After that, there was nothing to do but shuffle slowly out of the venue and into the warm Sunday night and listen to the familiar chorus of drunken wildlings shouting epithets at passing cars; as much a cultural staple of Boston as anything that happens across the street from House of Blues at Fenway Park, I should think. Nothing quite like a town that loves its traditions.
More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.