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Rural Rock Fury
By J. Eric Smith

Clutch, Scissorfight
Saratoga Winners, Nov. 16

Boy, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better twin bill for a rock show than the one that Clutch and Scissorfight offered Saturday night at Saratoga Winners. Both bands’ performances were just absolutely awesome, and they mined thematically similar creative lodes—although they discovered radically different sonic gems therein, tossing them out like deranged musical Carnegie heirs into the open hands, mouths and hearts of the needy mob before them.

Both Clutch and Scissorfight hail from rural parts of the country regarded for the most part by outsiders as scary or intimidating. Thing is, both Clutch and Scissorfight know that their home hamlets are scary and intimidating, and they revel in exploring and sharing the tawdrier sides of the West Virginia experience (Clutch’s area of expertise) or the more virulent aspects of life in northern New Hampshire (Scissorfight’s home base). What separates both groups from the gazillions of less-talented bands poking about in the same sonic spaces is the extreme intelligence with which both bands’ songwriters explore topics usually avoided or (at best) endured, rather than thought about.

Scissorfight frontman Ironlung is a big bear of a man—but he’s a helluva lot smarter than the average bear, and he devotes a good chunk of his lyrical focus on historically inspired examples of man’s savagery against man, nature, or whatever else happens to piss off man at a particular moment in his nasty, brutish life. Backed by a trio of the sludgiest sludge rockers imaginable (I mean, these guys make Queens of the Stone Age sound like Abba), Ironlung was absolutely riveting as he riled the crowd with such fabulous party sing-alongs as “Musk Ox,” “The Most Dangerous Animal Is Me” and “New Hampshire’s Alright if You Like Fighting.” Hell, these guys even played a G.G. Allin cover, and they played it like they meant it.

That’s ugly, that is, and that’s a very, very good thing when it comes to smart stoner rock of the flavor that Scissorfight offer. Clutch’s set was, perhaps, slightly less ugly—but just as compelling in its intensity and creativity. What Scissorfight present with sheer balls, brawn, power and volume, Clutch put forward with stupendous instrumental talent. The two lengthy instrumental workouts included in Saturday’s set (the second one, at the tail end of set highlight “Spacegrass” featuring Troy’s own Leo Curley, former axman with Biohazard) would have shamed any number of jam bands—but they never lost the audience while widdling, a feat pure and beautiful in its rarity. Lemme tell you: You haven’t seen a drummer play the drums until you’ve watched Jean-Paul Gaster behind the kit, and bassist Dan Maines and guitarist Tim Sult are easily the hardest-playing groovemeisters in modern rock history.

Which means Clutch are extraordinary as an instrumental trio (and sometimes they open for themselves in that capacity), but when you toss singer-guitarist Neil Fallon into the mix, you move in the realm of the sublime. The man’s got great pipes, writes brilliant lyrics, and is about as charismatic a performer as you’re likely to find in metal circles. Hell, his non- microphone hand alone conveyed more emotion than most singers get from their whole soul and being, as Fallon conducted the crowd like a maestro, and created little visual pantomime stories to accompany his lyrical litanies. Had you seen him Saturday night, you’d never look at “Little Bunny Fufu” the same way again—and you’d make damn sure that you were there to see Fallon and friends perform the next time they passed through town.

The Joy of Rocking

Shemekia Copeland
Club Helsinki, Nov. 17

Last week, blues diva Shemekia Copeland’s tour brought her to Manhattan’s B.B. King’s Blues Club and to Boston’s House of Blues. These places are surely two of the most prestigious showcase concert venues on the East Coast, befitting an artist with numerous W.C. Handy awards and a recent Grammy nomination.

Sunday night, Copeland returned to the teeny Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, a club that claims to seat 75 people, and probably can if the 75 people are all very, very small. Squeezed up on the little corner stage, and dodging drips from a leaky roof, Copeland and her four-piece band caused an absolute freakin’ riot. “Rockin’ the house” is an overused, hackneyed term. But that’s what it was—there’s no better way to describe it.

Copeland is diminutive, with a small expressive face framed by a couple thousand long dreadlocks, and the combination provides a certain troll-like comportment. She’s a blues shouter, there’s not a whole lot of subtlety in her delivery, and there needn’t be any. Listening to her voice was pure pleasure, the sort of golden voice you hear once and then recognize instantly for the rest of your life. She’ll spike a song at the top with a “Oooooh yeah!,” and the richness of that sound, the mental echo of it, carries the tune for the next 16 or 32 bars until she launches into the first verse. Her “Oooooh yeah!” should get a Nobel. Her “Oooooh yeah!” sits in the pantheon with James Brown’s “Heh!” Shemekia Copeland may have the most audacious and distinctive female voice. Aretha. Huh? Oh. Make that Patti LaBelle. Sorry.

The players were, as one would expect, all pro, all the time. Some great local flavor was supplied by keyboardist Jason Ladayne, whom some of you might remember from several years ago as Ernie Williams’ 15-year-old piano prodigy. As would be expected, he’s not 15 years old anymore, but he still plays like a prodigy, filling the room with B-3 organ sounds, and driving the harder tunes with barrelhouse piano. Guitarist Arthur Neilson played dazzling and economical licks on a succession of infinitely cool guitars.

The songs were mostly of the rockin’ blues variety, centering on the basic themes of “My man treated me wrong” and “I guess I treated my man wrong.” The tune “Leading Man” was remarkable, and could have been a great lost Stax/Volt hit from 1968. Lyrics were often hysterical, and when they weren’t, Copeland couldn’t help but throw in a goofy side remark or two.

If Helsinki were big enough to be called a roadhouse, this could be called a classic all-American roadhouse gig. As it was, it could be called miraculous. The whole night was gloriously loose, goofy, and joyous. What the folks at the club facetiously call “the dance floor” was jam-packed all night, and when Copeland signed off on the last song, she stepped off the stage and danced with the girls up front, encouraging her band to keep vamping, keep going, keep rockin’.

Local hero Albert Cummings opened the show with some interesting arrangements of blues standards and a couple of his originals, which he sang with his very underrated Paul Rodgers-like voice, accompanied by his beating the living piss out of his acoustic guitar like only a seasoned electric guitarist can.

—Paul Rapp

Facet Agreement

Erin McKeown
Case Center, Skidmore College, Nov. 17

Diminutive and unassuming in person, Erin McKeown is a formidable talent. Still in her early 20s, she’s been performing since her days as a student at Brown University. Her songwriting has a range and breadth that draws from traditions and real craft. She clearly winds her way through the entire process until the final result is the jewel it should be. (This approach being the exception rather than the rule in many performers currently hawking their wares—there are throngs of them that should be plopped on a bus and sent back to songwriting camp until they learn to truly write a song rather than a sonic groove with some flapping arms.)

McKeown’s performance Sunday afternoon at Skidmore was attended almost exclusively by students from the college. While that’s an apt circumstance for some of the coffeehouse fare they offer, in this case, McKeown’s got the goods to connect with as diverse an audience as anyone would care to toss at her. She fronted a trio with drummer George Javori and Rich Hinman, who switched between bass and guitar. For her part, McKeown played a few different guitars, starting with an amplified acoustic and moving to a couple electrics, including a jazzy hollow-body. She offered material from her existing pair of releases (her self-released debut Monday Morning Cold and Distillation, released two years ago on the Signature label) as well as a handful of new ones from her forthcoming spring release. The more swinging numbers brought to mind Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, minus the shtick, while the majestic and dramatic closer “Lullaby” sounded like vintage Fairport Convention.

Not only does McKeown embrace literary references, sly swagger and idiosyncratic lustfulness in her songs, but she revels in the joys of a combo. Her compatriots were both sympathetic and inventive players who allowed songs from her small but resonant back catalog to spring to reinvigorated life alongside the new numbers. This was not just three musicians playing rote arrangements; this was an interactive trio gliding in the moment.

—David Greenberger

Frog Wild

The Les Claypool Frog Brigade, Deadweight
Northern Lights, Nov. 18

Somehow, Les Claypool has gone and gotten himself lumped into the granola category. This may have much to do with his recent Oysterhead project, initially formed as a onetime gig for some festival, which included Stewart Copeland and . . . ahem . . . Trey Anastasio. Talk about accidentally beautiful career moves. And indeed, as I stood in the frigid not-so-hinterland that is Clifton Park this time of year, I noticed many a driver’s license with the shape of another state flicked into the hands of bouncers, as legions of dilated Dead deacons with big poofy hats and corduroy hemp dry goods poured themselves into the club. In fact, I think I saw only five people I knew all night. Or perhaps this says more about me personally than it does my staggering powers of observation.

Regardless, Claypool and his frazzled gaggle of one-named lycanthropes are certainly at once hilarious, soul/bowel-cleansing and awfully sublime, in a truck-stop kind of way. The San Franciscan circus hollerer has smartly surrounded himself with a troupe who can both humor and appreciate his concentration and crippling attention span. Interstellar diatribes like “Cosmic Highway” highlight the writer’s penchant for penning an entire 20-minute epic on the merits of a single note (in this case, D) trouncing the field of song with shattering crescendos and furtive, almost goofy lows. A storyteller extraordinaire, Claypool embodies all the silliness of John Lennon in his dope-smoking youth, the Nickelodeon slapstick of Spongebob Squarepants and the constitution of Teddy Roosevelt on Ketamine (no wonder Metallica didn’t hire his ass). His cohorts encourage this behavior with a surreal and dazzling array of instruments, some of which I didn’t even recognize as being accepted in any musical circle as an approved weapon of choice. One metallic, giraffe-necked banjo sounded like a mean old landlord bashing on lead pipes in the basement. Some looked edible, straight out of Candyland. I mean, I couldn’t figure out how 7-foot-tall guitarist Eenor was going to play them in the first place, and then the guy goes and puts a capo on the damn things? How does he even know where to put it? So much for the dumb-rock-star mythos.

“Daniel Makalaster,” an absolutely scathing assessment of the ubiquitous network talking head, contained an impromptu collaboration that is a rare magic in the dance halls. During a downswing in the tune, the incessantly garrulous Claypool spotted a girl in the front with a flute and invited her to step right up. “Can you play that thing?” he asked. “Yes!” came the reply. “Were you, like, first chair in your high school orchestra? “Yes!” “Really?” “Well, I was second chair.” “Alright then.”

And sure enough, the band clicked it in for the homespun lassie, who, resplendent in butterfly wings, proceeded to weave an absolutely dazzling melody over the band’s snot-nosed boogie, eventually luring the ringmaster himself into an arthritis-inducing duel. She couldn’t have been any more than 19 years old. Fantastic.

Toward the end, I must admit that the Frog Brigade’s aforementioned jam-addled technique, an exercise in telepathy as well as technical prowess, began to sway me into a large, impenetrable coma, but it wasn’t for lack of intrigue. The experience became like driving a fascinating distance on a long stretch of freshly paved highway, when willpower fades and hallucinations begin. The Brigade successfully capture the moment prior, having isolated in music the exact nanosecond before either the horrific, debilitating crash or the Arby’s Big Montana at the rest stop, if you can make it.

The superb Deadweight, also from the Bay Area, readied the eager fold with a rich, captivating swarm of unconventional stringplay. For just drums, cello and violin, these virtuosos make a ridiculous amount of good noise, filling every nook and cranny of the chart with sound, like listening to a genius spout the lurid details of a chemically enhanced overseas adventure to a trusted confidant after a one-year vow of silence. Like the Love Boat, exiting and new, but without the coke-frenzied cruise director.

—Bill Ketzer

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