It was only about an hour and a half to the Casino Ballroom in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, from my office, which felt like something of a miracle. Maryland heavy rock kingpins Clutch last played the venue about two years ago, but between it being the beginning of what will no doubt be a comprehensive touring cycle in support of their newly-released 11th album, Psychic Warfare (review here), and their partnering with the reunited four-piece incarnation of Corrosion of Conformity with SoCal heavy skaters The Shrine opening, it was an easy sell as far as I was concerned. Clearly I wasn’t the only one. I walked into the venue a little before The Shrine went on, and the place was already fairly packed. A large room, the prevailing mood was celebratory and ready to blow off steam. I think people were just looking for a good time.
And in kicking off the evening with a classic-rocking-but-somehow-still-punker boot to the ass, The Shrine seemed only too ready to get that good time moving. I had wondered how their very-Californian sound would translate to a chilly autumn night in New Hampshire — even one right across the street from a beach — but the three-piece of guitarist/vocalist Josh Landau, bassist Courtland Murphy and drummer Jeff Murray have busted their collective ass on the road the last couple years, and if they were out of their element, you never would’ve known it watching them on stage. Last I saw them was in early-2013 with Graveyard (review here) in Philly, and it was plain to see at the Casino Ballroom how much they’ve come into their own since. Their second album, Bless Off, was released by Tee Pee last year (I didn’t review it, but should have), following up their aptly-titled 2012 debut, Primitive Blast (review here), and their new one, Rare Breed, is out at the end of this month in Europe and in Jan. here in the States as their first in Century Media.
Their set felt quick, but it was enough to give a sense of the new album in songs like “The Vulture,” “Savage Skulls and Nomads,” which Landau told the crowd was about 1970s street gangs in New York, “Coming Down Quick” and “Death to Invaders” (don’t quote me on that last one, but I think that was it), running from the initial uproariousness of their first record to the thicker grooves of the second. This was the fifth night of the tour, which will run through Oct. 23 with the same three bands, and The Shrine were duly locked in, Murray keeping some bounce in the drums while also adding gallop to some of the more Motörheady riffing from the guitar while Murphy added backing vocals and a steady foundation in the low end. They finished with “Nothing Forever,” the longest cut from Bless Off, which emphasized some of the complexity in their approach — not t0 mention the tightness of their execution — that I think gets lost sometimes in how they present the band. Not that they should be stoic prog rockers, what they’re doing clearly works, but they’re tough to ignore after you watch them play. I’ll hope to get the chance to hear Rare Breed.
I was trying to think of the last time I saw the Pepper Keenan-fronted incarnation of Corrosion of Conformity, and I think it was in 2005. They would have been out supporting that year’s In the Arms of God, which got a mixed reception on its arrival but in my estimation remains underrated, and I believe it was Irving Plaza in New York. Weedeater and Alabama Thunderpussy may or may not have also played. Either way, it’s been a while. With the lineup of Keenan plus bassist/vocalist Mike Dean, guitarist/vocalist Woodroe Weatherman and drummer Reed Mullin — who’ve been playing as the “Animosity-era” trio the last several years and released an EP and two also-underrated albums in 2014’s IX (review here) and 2012’s declarative Corrosion of Conformity (review here) through Candlelight — C.O.C. have been playing shows throughout Europe and the UK since earlier this year, but to my knowledge this marks their first US run, at least on the East Coast, and it will preface a headlining tour set to start next month. A practice run? Maybe, but they hardly seemed rusty.
Set-wise, they dipped as far back as “Vote with a Bullet” from 1991’s Blind — which was Keenan‘s introduction to the band as vocalist/guitarist — and as far forward as the uptempo “Paranoid Opioid” from In the Arms of God, but the focus was on their two ’90s landmarks, Deliverance (1994) and Wiseblood (1996), and as someone who’s been rooting for the trio lineup the last several years sort of as underdogs working against the expectations of that portion of their audience dug deep into the heavy Southern Sabbathisms of those records, I had forgotten just how special that material actually is — songs like “Long Whip/Big America,” “Heaven’s Not Overflowing,” with which they opened, “Wiseblood” and “Seven Angels.” Hearing Dean and Mullin and Weatherman all switching off in backing vocal roles, or better, leading a sing-along all at once, was exhilarating, and Keenan, who’s spent the last several years in Down‘s descent into post-Kirk Windstein caricature machismo, is a frontman of undeniable charisma. There were some sound issues — a chirp of feedback when everyone got on mic during “Albatross,” etc. — but there was very little that would’ve been able to hold C.O.C. back, and even in the slower “13 Angels,” which was the sole representation from 2000’s America’s Volume Dealer, their last album as this four-piece (Stanton Moore of Nola jammers Galactic played drums on In the Arms of God), they were dead on in serving a refresher of just what a substantial portion of their fanbase has been clamoring for pretty much since they stopped playing circa 2006.
Keenan thanked Clutch from the stage for bringing them out and letting them, “Get their shit back together,” but the bigger news was when he announced that C.O.C. were in the process of signing to Nuclear Blast and that they’d have a new album out with this lineup in 2016. I had no official word, but I’d assume John Custer, who’s helmed all their records since Blind, will produce. Once he said it, which was I believe before “Vote with a Bullet” preceded “Albatross” and “Clean My Wounds” at the end of the set, my mind immediately flashed to the possibilities for what it might sound like, the balance of songwriting, who does vocals where — does the hardcore punk track still get relegated to the end of the tracklist? — and so on. Two months out from the New Year, a landmark for 2016 may have just been revealed.
Finding that out alone would’ve made my night. Even without a show. I mean, if I read that on Facebook or some shit, I’d have been like, “Well, my evening can end now, I feel like I’ve hit a satisfactory quota of awesome.” But there was still a gig going on, and Clutch were headlining! Similar to what they did after releasing Earth Rocker (review here) in 2013, and really going back further than that as well, the set was highly focused on the new album. Their stated method of one band member between vocalist Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster picking an evening’s setlist always leaves me guessing who’s responsible for what show, but in any case, between “X-Ray Visions” opening, “Firebirds,” “A Quick Death in Texas,” “Sucker for the Witch,” “Your Love is Incarceration,” “Our Lady of Electric Light,” “Noble Savage,” “Behold the Colossus” and “Son of Virginia,” the only song from Psychic Warfare unrepresented was the penultimate “Decapitation Blues.” Otherwise, they played the whole record, which coming from them is just what the crowd both expected and wanted.
“Son of Virginia,” which closed the regular set before a three-song encore, got a particularly vehement response, but “The Face” from Earth Rocker had me pulling my earplugs out to sing along, and “Elephant Riders” from 1998’s The Elephant Riders and “Dragonfly” from that same album felt like something special tossed in for longer-term fans, particularly the latter, which is a rarer inclusion. Their presence and delivery something of a given, Clutch seemed in likewise good spirits to the crowd, Fallon picking up the guitar more than he did when they were out for Earth Rocker to join Sult even on a faster cut like “Your Love is Incarceration.” They’re still tightening up some of the new material — other songs have been around for more than a year already and included in sets — but one assumes that by the time they get around to the inevitable live album sometime in 2016 or 2017, it will be no less second nature (or first, I guess) than “Cypress Grove” from 2004’s Blast Tyrant, which has become a perennial favorite and was clearly known to the packed Casino Ballroom, readily aware of that black plastic bag in the back of a jacked-up Ford.
Who could argue with an encore launched by “The Wolfman Kindly Requests…” from Earth Rocker? From its “Party’s over you all got to go” chorus to the bigger nod of its ending, the song feels hand-constructed to appear near the finish of a set, and joined by the more raucous “The Mob Goes Wild” from Blast Tyrant, for which Bryan “Uzi” Hinkley from Never Got Caught and formerly of Tree joined in on guitar, Clutch seemed geared to cap the night in high-octane fashion, but they cut back and let the more spacious “Electric Worry,” the highlight of 2007’s From Beale St. to Oblivion and an unmistakable precursor to a song like “Son of Virginia,” finish, with the uptempo kick of “One Eye Dollar” tacked on, which is nothing new but still feels like a bonus each time. One felt as though the entire venue, which was built and originally opened in 1899, was caught in the around-the-horn swirling rhythm.
By the time I managed to make my way out, the sidewalk was already flooded with weirdos, working-types and the other such and sundry who’d attended, the off-season windchill not drawing much of a shoreline crowd. I had about another 90 minutes to get home still ahead of me, so didn’t hang around long, but got to see a couple old friends and that’s always restorative, even if brief. Same could be said of the show as a whole, I suppose.
More pics after the jump. Thanks for reading.