Concert Review: Dinosaur Jr.
By Jason Shoff
This was the one note I made to myself the morning of Dinosaur Jr.’s show yesterday at Crescent Ballroom. And for good reason: not only because I’m horrible with bringing them to shows, but because this is a band that has a reputation of being one of the loudest bands that you’ll possibly hear in a live setting. Yet if all this band did was crank their amps up to Spinal Tap-levels of distortion, they wouldn’t have sold the place out. No; the reason these guys have been shredding for over three decades is because they have the tunes to back up their amp level, their classic SST albums laying the groundwork for the “grunge” revolution that followed (so much so that Kurt Cobain asked guitarist J. Mascis to join his band). But right at the peak of the band’s reign as one of the most influential indie rock bands of all-time, bassist Lou Barlow was kicked out of the band due to rising tensions with Mascis. The band continued on for a handful of major label releases (the first of which, 1991’s Green Mind, was the closest the band ever came to mainstream success), but they sounded more polished, losing the raw exhilarating vibe of their early records.
Then in 2007, the original three united for a new album and a tour, something that very few fans could have ever predicted would happen. And the best part? It stacked up with anything else in the band’s illustrious catalog. Now three more albums in, and during a time in which band after band seems to be reuniting to cash in on nostalgia and/or a big paycheck, Dinosaur Jr.’s reunion is still seen as one of the best in recent memory. Why? Because, quite simply: they did it on their terms. And now, as they’re on their latest tour to promote their newest record, Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, I was hoping that the spark that’s carried this second act was still burning bright on the live stage, justifying all of the hype that I’ve heard about their live act for years.
But first I have to give some props to their opener, Elisa Ambrogio, who played her set as a duo with Residual Echo’s Adam Payne. While she relied just as much on guitars and effects as Mascis does, the overall sound was strikingly different; almost a 180. Think Mazzy Star after taking a dose of codeine, filling the ballroom with echo and reverb that made their guitars sound like distant whale calls. After their first song, the band introduced a drum pad, which they used the rest of the set. However, they didn’t always stick to the rhythm, instead treating it as merely a suggestion of times. Regardless, it did add a crucial component to their sound, though I especially liked when they used a pattern that sounded like it was ripped straight out of Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” for one of their upbeat numbers. But the overall vibe reminded me of two people geeking out and jamming in their own garage, which was never less than interesting and even sometimes hypnotic. Yet I would honestly love to see them come back with a full band and a more fully-fledged sound.
Make no mistake though: I was also staring at Masics’ towering Marshall stacks the entire time, wondering if standing in front of them was really the best idea. I asked a guy who has seen them several times how loud they were. His response: “Half of these people will leave halfway through the first song.” Well, either no one forgot their earplugs or everyone in the crowd had ears of steel, because no one left once those amps went into overdrive. And they didn’t open with an easy-on-the-ears tune, either; “Bulbs of Passion” is a perfect example of the soft-loud-soft dynamic that was a trademark of Nirvana and countless other alt-rockers. After a spirited performance of “The Lung,” they ripped into the single from their new record, “Goin’ Down.” And boy does it translate well in a live-setting; with Barlow’s roaring bass, the driving percussion of drummer Murph, and the guitar heroics of Mascis, it really does become the quintessential Dinosaur Jr. tune.
The rest of the set balanced well between tunes from the new album and some of their standards. From the Give a Glimpse numbers, “Tiny” felt like something that could have been taken right from the Green Mind sessions; “Love Is…” was a nice, jaunty rocker sung by Barlow; and “Knocked Around” sounded like Mascis started crafting an “Imagine”-style power ballad before realizing halfway through that, hey, they’re a goddamn rock band. Yet they also served a heapin’ helping of classics, as well. “The Wagon,” in particular, featured some sweet Coral electric sitar playing from one of their roadies, and the should-have-been-a-hits (in a just world) “Feel the Pain” and “Start Choppin’” imagined a world in which Barlow never left the group. Another standout was “Watch the Corners,” which sounded funky in a Zeppelin-esque, “we’re here to ravage and destroy your land” sort of way, which Mascis’ solo slaying pretty much anything in its path.
But the best was definitely saved for last with the trio of songs that the ended their main set with. “I Walk for Miles,” the last song they played from the new album, pulverized your senses in the way that the best Black Sabbath rockers do. This led perfectly into the classic (and my personal favorite) “Freak Scene,” which contained all of the rage and energy of the original, nearly thirty year old recording. The band then ended with “Gargoyles,” a flat-out motherfuckin’ jam in which Mascis proceeded to melt everyone’s faces off with one of the best solos I’ve ever seen live, pure and simple.
After a brief intermission, the band came on for a two-song encore. After Barlow asked the crowd what they wanted to hear, he held the microphone to someone in the crowd (who honestly looked like he was in his teens) that proceeded to scream “SLUDGEFEAST!!!” Which they proceeded to play, and it was definitely truth in advertising; five-plus minutes of distortion, riffs and epic guitar playing. They also played their hardcore rendition of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” before calling it a night right at the two hour mark. And honestly, this is by far the best two hours of flat-out rock and roll that I have seen in a long, long time. Just make sure you bring earplugs if you see them.