Joyful Yetis on the Open Sea

The sludgy, swampy delirium of Clutch is perfect for maritime marriage proposals

Someone is smoking pot before the Clutch show. You may find this unbelievable. Nonetheless, the scent is overpowering, wafting up from the deck of the Temptress as we creep groggily onto the Hudson River, jovial metalheads snapping digital-camera pics of the full moon framed by the midtown skyline. A lovely, idyllic moment well suited for lighting up, burning down, tuning out, etc.

A concerned gentleman approaches the aromatic throng. "Whoever's smoking out here [gestures to only black person in sight]—I don't mean you, I just smell it real strong right here—look out, because the Coast Guard is on the boat." The Temptress sound system is blasting Monster Magnet's "Dopes to Infinity." If the Coast Guard is really on this boat, we're all fucked. To paraphrase Mclusky, most likely several touring funk bands' worth of narcotics have accompanied us out to sea. Thankfully, the Coast Guard appears not to be aboard, but alongside, in one of those sweet little speedboats, doing doughnuts. Seriously—doughnuts. Coast Guard dudes are showing off for us. Like a small yapping dog attempting to impress/antagonize a much larger and largely indifferent dog. The aromatic pre-Clutch throng is unimpressed. "They ain't catching me," says the only black person in sight. "They're lazier than Biggie Smalls's left eye."

Ah, the pleasures of a Rocks Off cruise. Had to do the boat thing again. Love the boat. Unbeatable view, unbeatable atmosphere. It matters not that the Temptress's interior is sweltering, the sightlines ludicrous. Roughly 10 percent of the crowd (the front row, basically, and perhaps those impatient gentlemen in line for their only bathroom) can actually see the band; they effectively block the view of another 60 percent, while the remaining 30 percent on the balcony level stare down, not at the completely obscured band, but at the similarly sightless masses below, who provide entertainment by stumbling around and cheerfully beating each other up. A sold-out Clutch show is the perfect fit for this layout, the crowd brazen and boisterous but not at all hostile—awful lot of hugging going on in that mosh pit.

Clutch kick things off with a tune called "Burning Beard." This is all the description you can possibly need. The wizened Maryland quintet's sound and visual aesthetic is very Erudite Lumberjack, muscular stoner-metal in conception, but avoiding the style's penchant for empty-riff, slack-jawed vapidity. This is lucid, literate, wry, visceral stuff, with a vicious blues swing and more gargantuan, teeth-gritting riffs than . . . several touring funk bands. Another appropriate song title: "The Yeti." Filing aboard the Temptress, everyone walked past the stage already adorned with Clutch's gear, including a long rack of 10 to 15 harmonicas. At first blush, the band's endless arsenal of brutal, bludgeoning grooves echoes the image—each weapon neatly arranged, fully loaded, and armed for combat, but all nearly identical. Only thing that changes is the key. But with time (and sweat, and maybe weed), each riff individually blooms, asserts itself, detonates, and writes its own graduate thesis. "Burning Beard" now dead-ends into "Child of the City" (off the band's 10th full-length, From Beale Street to Oblivion, released this spring), this particular badass riff swarmed by strafing swaths of soul-power organ as gruff frontman Neil Fallon barks animatedly about—uh, well, it's upper-level course material, whatever it is. Clutch's website includes Beale Street's lyrics along with a brief description of each song's genesis, straight from Neil himself. Here's the entry for "Child of the City":

"Some say Johannes Trithemius was a magician. Others believe he disguised his science and steganography inside a magical guise as an example of its practical application. Whatever the case, it's good material for rock and roll lyrics."

What's amazing is that Neil is right. Which is not to say his imagery is entirely, or even mostly, academic—"I'm not giving you attitude! I just want another drink!" he barks on the chorus to "Power Player," which is particularly effective at whipping the crowd into a frenzy, the 10 percent that can actually see him barking his words right back at him, often jabbing their fingers angrily at Neil for emphasis, which for a frontman has to take some getting used to. "Cypress Grove" is all back-alley/backroads hooliganism: references to Holy Diver, a shotgun, the Sheriff, and a "razor-back boar in the back of a jacked-up Ford." Braying harmonica clashes with gospel keys, rumbling bass unspools low-end chaos theory, Neil barks, the shrill guitars bite back. "Bang, bang, bang, bang!" everyone screams. "Vamanos, vamanos!"

The band plays two hour-long sets with a 15-minute break in between. The tightly wound and individually wrapped mind-bombs of the first installment dissolve into several massive lumps of partially digested jams in the second: more solos, more thundering drummer histrionics, more Cherry Garcia meandering, more overt nods to Clutch's distinguished clutch of influences, from bone-dry, desert-haunting Kyuss howls to a long, agreeably sloppy slog through an approximation of Hendrix's "Machine Gun." This would all make an excellent soundtrack to a remake of Roadhouse.

The sludgy, swampy sort of delirium Clutch create results in a rare and wonderful oddity: As the first set ends, there is an onstage marriage proposal. I have witnessed such a thing on one other occasion: a Sunny Day Real Estate show six or seven years back. Given the fluttery emo-ness of that particular occasion, I presume the resulting union has long since dissolved; the Clutch engagement, though, has a much more solid foundation. He starts off by sheepishly praising the band, making this the rare instance of a marriage proposal that includes the word "motherfuckers." She is dazed and disbelieving—"Open it!" he prods, as she stares blankly at the ring box he's just handed her—but when it's officially time for her to respond, she grabs Neil's mic and shouts the only thing really appropriate for the occasion: Hell yeah!

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