Little did I know it, but the "Guests" listed on the ticket for this Clutch show were The Bakerton Group. For those who might not know, the Bakerton Group is the members of Clutch in their bluesy jam band disguise. Not knowing this, we walked into the Masquerade and saw Clutch playing instrumental jam band riffs and I thought that maybe we had missed the opening act and that Clutch had gone off the deep end.
While I enjoyed The Bakerton Group, I kept listening to them with a strange sense of unease, as if one of my favorite bands had suddenly decided to change course without asking me. This was not the case, but it led to an even more important insight.
Clutch began as a hard rocking metal-y band. I don't know exactly what you'd call their sound on early records like Pitchfork and Passive Restraints, but no matter. By the time of their self-titled record, they had mellowed out a lot and they were playing much more with space. It never occurred to me that Clutch might be a jam band in disguise, but after two decades and a ton of records, it was obvious that they were doing something uniquely theirs.
But what if Clutch had turned into The Bakerton Group that night? What if they'd played none of the hits, and just decided to whig out on some mind bender jams? As a longtime Clutch fan, I would have been pretty disappointed and that points to the difficulty that long-running acts have with updating their sound. There are Nitzer Ebb fans who won't have anything to do with Big Hit but can't wait for a tour where the guys wear red and black military fashion and shout their way through "Join in the Chant" era tracks for an hour.
As an artist, where does your debt to your fans end and your room to experiment and grow begin? It's the age old tension of art and commerce, and it's one of the things that makes creative careers so hard. The fourth Larvae record sounds very different than the first one and I'm sure that I lost some people along the way, but I tried to keep some parameters in place so as not to turn everyone off when I played live. It was hard.
I enjoy seeing a band grow and change. When I really attach to a group, it's usually because I connect with what they are trying to do on some deeper level than how the music sounds. With Clutch, I love the humor in their songs. Early Clutch sounds angry. Late Clutch sounds bemused by the absurdity of it all.
As an all instrumental group, The Bakerton Group lost the humor for me, which is why I couldn't connect with it as Clutch. But maybe that was itself the joke.