As fun as it’s been witnessing Clutch’s slow evolution from obscure hardcore act, to top-flight stoner rock band, to one of the most distinct rock ‘n’ roll bands in America, no matter how strong their recent albums are, the one record that many fans are most attached to is the classic self-titled 1995 debut. With an incredibly deep back catalog, there’s no shortage of material to draw from, and Clutch loves to be unpredictable, their live sets mixing newer tracks with older obscurities. Whenever they drag out a song from that ‘95 album, though, the crowd always erupts.
“Big News” I and II, “The House That Peterbilt”, “Escape From the Prison Planet”, “Texan Book of the Dead”, whatever the song, those already rowdy “gearheads” in the crowd go insane when those lumbering, ultra-heavy tunes make an appearance. So when it came time for Clutch to put together a definitive live DVD set, what better way to thank their devoted fanbase for their loyalty than to play the Clutch album in its entirety?
Granted, the notion of playing an old album from start to finish has become a tired gimmick in rock and metal these days, and with Clutch it does take away that element of surprise that comes with their live shows, but considering just how much the foursome of singer Neil Fallon, guitarist Tim Sult, bassist Dan Maines, and drummer Jean-Paul Gaster has grown 15 years since the album’s release, there’s no question it would be interesting to see just how the album would sound performed in full today. So that’s what the band did on 28 December 2009 at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club, playing a sweaty, 90-minute set in front of a jam-packed crowd, with film and audio to capture it all for posterity.
The end result is the aptly titled two-disc set Live at the 9:30, and needless to say, this is an absolute must-own for any Clutch fan, well-shot with intimate camera angles in the cozy venue and boasting a very strong audio mix. Never the most visually riveting band you’ll ever see, merely three nondescript guys with a bearded nut howling away, Clutch has always been more about musical chemistry, and in a live setting they can lock into a groove better than anybody. The records always deliver, but live they take things to another level, and the fans know it, following the band as obsessively as Deadheads.
You won’t hear a more fluid live show, something evidenced in the 9:30 performance. After a scorching run-through of four blues-drenched songs from 2009’s Strange Cousins From the West, the real work begins, as Maines launches into the unmistakable bassline of “Big News I”, and that swinging groove doesn’t let up for a good 50-minutes.
It takes no time to hear the difference between the band now and on the original record. Sult’s riffs are as gargantuan as ever, but there’s more expression in his playing. Although he still shouts Clutch‘s nonsensical refrains with gusto (“Hee haw, hee haw”…“Ooeeooahah, E-I-E-I-0”), Fallon is no longer the all-out bellower, his phrasing now allowing for more nuance, bringing a much richer feel to his singing.
The plucked basslines by the hugely underrated Maines sound even smoother, while his masterful rhythm section partner Gaster all but steals the show, his perfectly timed fills and accents proof that he’s ten times the drummer now than he was in the mid-‘90s. In fact, though it might be blasphemous in the minds of many, this performance of the Clutch album is superior to the original.
The focal point of the second disc is the 110-minute tour documentary “Fortune Tellers Make a Killing Nowadays”, an excellent behind-the-scenes feature in which we hear from not only the band – who are very accommodating and forthright - but their longtime crew and many of their dedicated fans. What really sticks out in the piece is just how devoted to their craft the band really is, as they spend a great deal of their time before shows practicing on their own, honing their chops knowing there’s always room for improvement.
That’s what draws so many people to this fine Maryland band: they work hard, continue to refine their music live and on record, play as many cities as they can, and now that they’re in complete control over their art after years of label strife, they’ve wasted no time in showing their appreciation for their steadily growing audience by putting out a superb live recording.