Performing 'Blast Tyrant' In Its Entirety For The First Time Ever!
The Steel Woods, Damon Johnson
With the release of their highly anticipated 12th studio album, the gloriously titled “Book of Bad Decisions”, it would be easy to suggest that legendary Maryland rockers Clutch have made their finest record to date. This may even be true. You see, the thing about Clutch is that ever since their 1993 debut Transnational Speedway League they’ve been in the business of writing stone cold classics, and even the most rabid fan would have trouble picking just one. “Book of Bad Decisions” won’t make that task any easier. Rest assured, it’s another classic.
Recorded over three weeks at Sputnik Studios in Nashville, “Book of Bad Decisions” was produced by four-time Grammy winner Vance Powell (Seasick Steve, The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys, etc.), a man who apparently knows that a one degree angle change in microphones makes a difference to how an instrument sounds. Interestingly, his name first came to the band’s attention via country star Chris Stapleton.
“It started with my brother-in-law, who’s a huge Chris Stapleton fan,” says drummer Jean-Paul Gaster. “He and I would listen to The Traveller quite a bit, and one thing that stood out was that it didn’t sound like any other country record that I’d heard. Shortly after that I was on Spotify, and a song by The Dead Weather came up. It just blew me away and I could tell that whoever produced that record was doing things a different way. I looked it up and there was Vance Powell’s name again, so something was telling us that this is a guy we should reach out to.”
“Even though Chris Stapleton does music that’s not too much like our own, the sonics of the record are pretty great,” says frontman Neil Fallon. “He has a very different approach to recording; he comes from the school of live recording and engineering, and the songs, on tape, are not gonna sound that much different from what we do live.”
No stranger to the road, Powell spent three days on tour with the band in order to get a feel for what they do best, watching first from the front of house and then from the stage, checking out the live sound and how Clutch connect with their audience.
“I never go into a record having an idea of how it’s gonna sound,” he says. “But after hearing them live, I had an idea of how they could sound. I’m a big live recording fan, so I like when bands play together and I didn’t wanna get into that manufacturing a record concept. I wanted it to be real organic.”
Indeed, ‘organic’ is a word that comes up a lot when talking to Clutch about the new record, Powell taking great care to get guitar tones right and making sure that each song had its own identity.
“Vance is all about vintage guitar sounds,” says guitarist Tim Sult. “I probably had more amplifier options than on any other album we’ve done. It was like going back to a music store in 1960! This was the first time I’ve ever recorded with amps from the ’50s and I ended up buying a couple of ’50s amps while we were in Nashville.”
“I felt really good about the gear that I was bringing into the studio,” concurs bassist Dan Maines, “but Vance had this 1974 Ampeg and I’m so glad that he recommended that. As soon as we plugged it in, it sounded like Sabbath! We ended up using it alongside one of my amps, and I loved it so much that once we were done recording I scoured the ads for another one. What I really like is that each song has a different tone to it, and I think that’s Vance Powell’s style.”
With each band member contributing riffs to the album – including Jean-Paul who has added mandolin to his repertoire – there was no shortage of material, each song road-tested long before it reached the studio. Hell, with 15 songs, “Book of Bad Decisions” could easily pass as a double album! Always wary of repeating themselves and retreading old ground, there is even – for the first time on a Clutch album – a horn section that swings like James Brown’s pants!
“The third night I was watching the band,” says Vance, “they did this song that at that time was called Talkbox, which is now In Walks Barbarella. While Neil was singing, I was thinking to myself, “wow, there’s a horn line here!” And while he was singing, I was humming it to myself. I brought it up to them, tenuously, and they were like, “okay, let’s do it!” This is as Parliament, Funkadelic as it gets, maybe even a James Brown vibe!”
One thing, however, that is entirely as expected, is that as arguably the greatest rock lyricist of modern times, Fallon, as always, has provided some interesting subject matter, everything from poets to presidents and recipes to rock ‘n’ roll. You may have to Google some of it, because Fallon is nothing if not a clever bugger, and likes to keep his audience on their toes.
“Most of the time I have no idea what he’s talking about,” laughs Jean-Paul, “but the lyrics completely inform how I’m going to play that tune. Whether or not I understand exactly what Neil is singing about is not important. I listen to the way Neil sings those words and I think about what those words mean to me, and that, ultimately, informs how I’m gonna play drums on that song.”
“I think I probably second guess myself into doing that,” says Neil of his lyrical style. “I would rather not be able to answer all the questions, just to keep it interesting for myself. Sometimes a rhyme sounds awesome and I don’t know what it means, but I’ll go with it anyway. It’s become more difficult to write lyrics now that I have Wikipedia at my fingertips, because you can go down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and not get anything done! Not too long ago you’d have to spend months in a public library trying to find out the things you can find in a couple of keystrokes.”
Elsewhere, however, you’ll find a more straightforward approach to lyrics, A Good Fire relating the memory of hearing Black Sabbath for the first time – something that everyone can relate to – while Sonic Counselor pays homage to Clutch fans. Indeed, it’s fair to say that Clutch fans – collectively known as Gearheads – are a breed like no other.
“I’ve always loved rock songs that just celebrated rock ‘n’ roll,” grins Fallon, “but that song was a bit more about the people who come to our shows, that make it as exciting for us as hopefully it is for them. My favorite shows that I’ve seen bands do is like going to church, especially when everybody’s in sync with each other and you walk out with your jaw on the floor. I feel incredibly grateful that people have walked out of our shows and felt the same way. It’s a tip of the hat to them.”
“We’re exceptionally lucky to have the fans we have,” Jean-Paul agrees. “They’re diehard, and because of that, we take this that much more seriously. We do not take this for granted. We know that those folks could be anywhere else, and they’ve chosen to spend the evening at a Clutch show, so we’re gonna do the best we can to provide them with the best musical experience we can. I think that translates to the records, because at the end of the day, all you have is your records. When this whole thing wraps up, those are gonna be the things that go down in history.”
The Steel Woods
“Well, I ain’t afraid of dying ‘cause I know where I’ll go/There I’ll live forever on the streets made of gold” “Rock That Says My Name”
The Steel Woods’ sophomore Thirty Tigers album, Old News, represents a creative leap for the southern roots rock songwriting team of Alabama native Wes Bayliss and his North Carolina partner Jason “Rowdy” Cope, who completed their first recordings barely months after they first met.
Recorded in Asheville, NC at Echo Mountain Studios, the site of an old church during a six-day break in a hectic touring schedule, the new double-vinyl disc (the follow-up to 2017’s critically acclaimed Straw in the Wind) features more original songs and, for the first time, the whole band participated – including the rhythm section of bassist Johnny Stanton and drummer Jay Tooke – playing in a single room, cutting the tracks virtually live.
“We really hone in on what we do, our strengths as a band, establishing a musical identity,” explains Wes about their latest effort. “The first album, we were still figuring out our sound, so what came out, came out. This time, we had a premeditated blueprint, a real plan.”
The songwriting partnership between Bayliss and Cope continues to grow, mature and blossom. “Over time, you find out a person’s strengths and weaknesses, and it just happened to turn out his strengths are my weaknesses, and vice versa.”
Part Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, dual-guitar southern blues-rock with elements of R&B, country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, folk and metal, the descriptively named, Nashville-based band deepens its resolve on a theme-driven album that joins the mystery train of the past with the full-speed loco-motion of the present, seeking to bring people together with the universality of music.
Conceptually and musically, Old News delivers a set of songs at once eternal with lyrics wrenched from today’s headlines, featuring mythic reverberations and social critiques to boot. The album mourns an idealized past but isn’t afraid to point the way to a better future that enlists the best of both worlds.
Like The Steel Woods’ previous release, death and mortality make their chilling presence felt, whether it’s in the collection’s cemetery-placed set piece, “Rock That Says My Name,” whose theme is classic Shelley – “Ozymandias, look upon ye works and despair” – or the vintage bluegrass country of “Anna Lee,” the culmination of a murder trilogy begun with “Della Jane’s Heart” on the last album and ending with the Neil Young/Crazy Horse-ish instrumental, “Red River (The Fall of Jimmy Sutherland).” That preoccupation spills over into an idiosyncratic cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “The Catfish Song,” and a special four-song epilogue that includes faithful tributes to artists who have passed away – Tom Petty (“Southern Accent”), Merle Haggard (the prescient “Are The Good Times Really Over”), Gregg Allman (“Whipping Post” as funeral dirge) and Alabama singer/songwriter Wayne Mills (the meditation on mortality, “One of These Days”). Just as on Straw in the Wind, there’s a Black Sabbath cover, this time a take on “Changes” that transforms the song into a smooth Memphis-style Al Green soul croon, a nod to the cover by the late Charles Bradley.
“Death is a part of life that gets looked over,” says Wes. “It can be a positive or a negative, consequence or reward… It just finds its way into a lot of our writing.”
The album’s title track – which inspired the mock old-fashioned newspaper album cover representing each of the songs with a tintype illustration – is an example of the timeliness and timelessness of Old News, a song of hope that focuses on what connects us. “And pray for Miss Liberty,” sings Wes. “And the crack in Her bell/There’s a tear in Her eye/But Her arm hasn’t fell.”
“We wanted to write a song of hope,” says Bayliss, who notes his wife gave him a hard time about the grammatically incorrect use of “fell.” “Forget about those small things which divide us. This is about the things we all have in common. We’re all here living and working, trying to get by, raising families. We all just want to live and die free.”
In a world torn apart by differences, Old News invites us to partake of music as a common language, reinvigorating classic tropes with up-do-date relevance. The rowdy guitar blues of “Blind Lover” envisions a world where we trust our hearts without judgement, while “Compared to a Soul” offers another of The Steel Woods’ penchant for moral fables, this one a pair of Faustian bargains with the devil, one a man who shoots a friend for cheating at cards, the other a Jezebel stepping out on her Marine lover.
The opener, “All of These Years,” offers a ZZ Top-like guitar riff from an unrecorded song, “Shooting Scar,” while “Without You” offers tough love to a friend “in a bad place,” but in a last-minute narrative twist, turns out to be confronting his own reflection in a shattered mirror.
“This wasn’t an easy record to make,” acknowledges Bayliss about the blood on some of these Old News tracks.
“Rock That Says My Name” is arguably the album’s raison d’etre, a sprawling multi-part epic that recalls such forebears as Buffalo Springfield’s Jack Nitzsche-produced “Expecting to Fly,” confronting our own lives in the rear-view mirror. The song ends with Wes’ grandfather solemnly intoning the words of Matthew 6:19-21 from the King James Bible, a benediction that leads into the four-song “Obituaries” tribute that ends the album. The song was inspired by Wes reading an article about someone purchasing a tombstone in advance.
“What better way to drive yourself to live well than looking at your legacy, what you leave behind when you’re gone,” says Wes. “Just a rock with your name, when you were born and the day you died.”
“We’re going to tour this record and do everything in our power to do it justice and get it out to our fans,” says Bayliss. With Old News, The Steel Woods continue to build on the independent-minded approach to recording, touring and connecting to fans which has defined their career from the start.
Damon Johnson is an American guitarist, vocalist, entertainer and songwriter, born in Macon, Georgia and raised in Monroeville and Geraldine, Alabama. He is regarded for his work as vocalist/guitarist for Brother Cane and for his time as guitarist for Alice Cooper, Thin Lizzy and Black Star Riders. Johnson’s list of other writing, recording and performing credits include John Waite, Stevie Nicks, Carlos Santana, Sammy Hagar, Queensryche, Faith Hill, Skid Row, and The Temptations.
As a solo artist (via his own independent label, Double Dragon Records), Johnson has issued two acoustic albums: ‘Dust’ (2000) and ‘Release’ (2010). He followed up an all electric EP, ‘Echo’ (2016) with a 16-song live collection with his solo band, ‘Birmingham Tonight’ (2017). Johnson’s first full length electric solo album, ‘Memoirs Of An Uprising’, will be available worldwide in March 2019.