The Giant Clam
Recorded at its lone Dec. 27, 2002, performance at the Ottobar, The Giant Clam: A Rock Opera DVD is a winking document of what looks like a good performance. Conceived and written by local editor/musician Geoff Brown and his friend/musician John Keating, Clam became a two-act, 19-song Herman Melville-by-way-of-Jules Verne odyssey of one diver’s perilous journey to capture the titular mollusk and his subsequent capture, his wife’s fretting over his deep-sea fate, and a German diver’s quest to rescue the diver from his watery grave—or maybe send him to it quicker. Its staging turns a rock club into an aquarium of hanging fishies and tiny bubbles, and the principals—guitarist Brown (German Diver, Giant Eel), bassist Bud Tiffany (Ancient Mariner, Giant Squid, the Diver’s Wife), Twin Six guitarist Chris Iseli (Iver the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Driver), and Chester Stacey guitarist Neil Eber (the Diver), and Billroys drummer John Marsh (the Giant Clam, the Mollusk King)—don matching gray jumpsuits and change characters through a series of inspired hats and props. Showgirl Foxy LaRue recites the scene-setting overture and walks title cards across the stage between song-scenes. And away they go.
If only it were so. The Giant Clam wisely incorporates archival footage and still photos to animate its tale as a series of found-image storytelling offsetting the concert footage. But the DVD can’t make up its mind if it’s gonna stick to the cheeky pretensions of the performance—each song receives a Thackeray-esque subheading, e.g. the epigram “The Constant quest for sustenance sends the Wife to the fishing pier . . . ” accompanies “The Fisherman’s Wife, Fishing”—or add the cheap-seat funny. An image of a whale receives the subtitle “The heart of a blue whale is the size of a VW Beetle,” the factoid a mere setup for the ensuing subtitle “Yet the whale is incapable of ‘human’ love.” These non sequiturs are beyond lame and take the Nova-meets-rock show into VH1 “Pop-Up Video” land. You’re half-surprised somebody didn’t subtitle the whole DVD as The Life Post-Ironic With Baltimore Country Rock.
Which is too bad, because the songs themselves are very good. Brown and Co. nail the self-satisfied, anthemlike self-importance of the rock opera, and the lyrics playfully convey a sense of narrative within the confines of the rock verse, even if the five guys don’t have one voice between them. Songs such as “Setting Sail” and “Guten Morgen Fraulein” find the perfect balance between the light-hearted and the conventions of genre—who knew rocking whimsy could exist?—and the entire band brings the perfect attitude of being serious about what they’re doing but not taking themselves too seriously to realize The Giant Clam with entertaining charm.