With their standard cloaks of anonymity and eyes averted, the members of Clinic took the stage of the cramped Eden of West Hollywood, Doug Weston's Troubadour, on March 2. They and their audience wouldn't unclench until the house light came back on after the hour-long set. An unlikely rock frontman, Ade Blackburn's cobra-spit delivery barely projected above the band but commanded rapt attention. Blackburn's surgical mask (requisite on-stage accessories for the band) had an opening over his mouth, his voice remained muffled and strangled. We can only guess what many of his lyrics are, a mystery that the band clearly welcomes. From the costumes to the lighting to the clipped, direct stage patter, Clinic would prefer to remain a riddle wrapped in an enigma adorned in scrubs.
In spite of these potentially distancing aspects of Clinic's persona, the performance at the Troubadour was arresting. Blackburn, while never actively engaging the audience, proved a compelling stage presence, tightly wound and entranced. Lead guitarist Hartley (one name only) didn't seem to acknowledge the crowd at any point, and drummer Carl Turney was similarly clued into his kit, letting their play provide the personality. The extrovert by default was bassist Brian Campbell, making the most of the limited space available onstage, bobbing in time and actually seeming to enjoy himself.
Many of Clinic's songs launch with an aggressive one- or two-note bass line and propulsive kick drum, to such an extent that a few times I initially thought I was hearing a song for a second time. The lack of aesthetic variation is expected from certain music genres, but many art-rock acts could perceive it as a liability. Would Clinic have been an even more impressive live act if a ballad or other creative detour were incorporated into the set? I suspect not, and the band members are shrewd enough to accept this, letting songs subtly distinguish themselves through Blackburn's autoharp, Hartley's frozen-surf guitar riffs, and Turney's catch and release drumming.
A few numbers distinguished themselves. "Harvest (Within You)," more of a mid-tempo chug off of Visitations (released in October via Domino), had a threat of seismic activity deep below the surface. Another new track, the muted, sinister "Animal/Human," hissed and smoldered. Toward the end of the set, Clinic unleashed "Walking With Thee," perhaps the most cathartically designed song in its catalog, and the incongruously animated crowd near front of stage boiled over, a threat of violence and danger made manifest. For a moment, the cold, calculated menace of Clinic's music had incited a passion that had to surprise even the band itself.
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