Clutch Web@Newcastle O2 Academy, April 22 2014

It’s official. Clutch are finally cool.

Over the years the Maryland mob have been variously described as underground heroes, the musicians’ musicians, a cult phenomenon and genre-busting boundary breakers.

But Clutch have never, ever been cool. 

That all changed on the back of 2013’s widely-touted, career-defining, classic rock tinged album Earth Rocker.

A glorious culmination of a 24-year career, it gained critical acclaim and fan adoration. Clutch might not have noticed but Earth Rocker was the record that made the world of difference.

If it was difficult to pinpoint what made that album so very special then the first date of their latest UK headline tour went some way to explaining the recent explosion of interest in Neil Fallon and co.

Clutch have channeled more than two decades of experience and finally unlocked their inner appeal: mixing pounding rhythms with heavy choruses and funk-fuelled riffs, theirs is a heady sound that perfectly captures the mood for 70s-inspired, Southern-flavoured, laid-back, groove-laden rock.

It was always thus, of course. Inside a beard-heavy Academy, veterans of 15 or more Clutch shows marveled at their favourite band’s new-found popularity and recalled a time when dyed-in-the-wool classic rockers would scoff at the prospect of Fallon and his buddies crafting an album as vivacious and vital as Earth Rocker.

Those unbelievers have been turned and that landmark record featured prominently in a no-holds-barred 90-minute show. But there was still much to enjoy for the Clutch aficionado – even if the band chose to ignore 1995’s self-titled offering and its groundbreaking predecessor.

The title track from The Elephant Riders, cult classic One Eye Dollar and Pure Rock Fury paid homage to early creativity but it was the 10th anniversary celebration of Blast Tyrant that really captured the imagination and sparked a frenzied reaction. Five choice cuts – including encore favourite Profits Of Doom – from that Clutch classic almost eclipsed the best of Earth Rocker.

But it’s testimony to the power, focus and ubiquitous appeal of the band’s most recent album that it comfortably stole the show alongside so many sparkling standards. Confident enough to close the main set with The Wolf Man Kindly Requests… – and cap the encore with the anthemic Unto The Breach – it’s clear a band on a roll knows where its strengths lie in 2014.

Another of those strengths is picking the perfect opening act for their biggest UK tour to date. Fellow Maryland natives Lionize are fellow pogonophiles and share Clutch’s love for the alternative, genre-bending and downright divisive.

They may be new to the UK scene but five albums into their career and it was no surprise the organ-inspired quartet delivered their debut British show with confidence and aplomb. New album Jetpack Soundtrack is a triumph of 70s-inspired retro goodness with a taste of Cream, shades of Purple and some of the blackest Sabbath underpinning a wildly addictive set.

Frontman Nate Bergman knows how to entertain and knows how to belt out a mean riff but it was ethereal keys man Chris Brooks who stole the support slot show. An old head on young shoulders, his personal quest to bring back the golden age of heavy rock affirmed Lionize’s brazen appeal.

Simon Rushworth

Exclusive image courtesy of John Burrows @ishootgigs