When Dinosaur Jr spluttered to a halt in the late 1990s after touring the unenthusiastically received Hand it Over, it seemed unlikely that 20 years later the band would be celebrating a decade, and four strong albums, back together in its original form. If they’re not Exhibit A in in defence of the idea of old bands reforming (I’d maybe cite the Go Betweens, who I think made their best album right before Grant McLennan sadly passed away), they’ve certainly proved that a group can get back together and rival their best work.
Having never seen them back then, and always being short of money in the early years of their reformation, I’d never seen Dino play live, although I did catch a J Mascis solo show a couple of years ago, and I thought it was about time I made the effort. The gig was originally scheduled for December last year, but J Mascis had a throat infection and the band had to cancel. So last night, finally, I went to the Roundhouse to be deafened by Mascis’s mighty wall of Marshalls.
In the event, the band weren’t the all-out sonic assault I’d read about in Our Band Could Be Your Life and sundry other places. It was perfectly safe to be without earplugs, though I found that keeping them in attenuated some of the high frequencies from Mascis’s guitar and made Murph’s snare drum more audible. Certainly they never got into My Bloody Valentine territory, which is kind of what I was expecting.
So today, with hearing intact, thinking about the gig, I feel like the band put a shift in, but something didn’t quite take off for me. I think fundamentally, Dinosaur Jr are a small-room band. So much of the pleasure of their music is the physical sensation of the J Mascis guitar sound and Lou Barlow’s distorted bass (which is strummed more than anything), and hearing it in a large room changes your relationship to that sound. It’s very noticeable that the band make their records in Mascis’s home studio and they seem to use small iso rooms to track drums and guitars, which makes their records sound very close and upfront.
Still, while I never felt immersed in the music in the way I’d hoped to, the band played well. They opened with Thumb from Green Mind, which is a very different experience live from the Mellotron-based studio version with the weird drum sound (what was going on there? It sounds like a drum machine. It couldn’t be, could it?), and followed it with three strong songs from new album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not. I was particularly happy that Barlow and Mascis swapped instruments and Lou got to take a lead vocal; if you’ve been on my blog before, you’ll know that Lou’s my guy.
Watch the Corners from the last album was one of the set highlights (Mascis’s solo at the end was great), then they went back to the mid-1990s for Out There and Feel the Pain. Those aren’t, if I’m honest, favourites of mine, but the crowd loved them, especially the latter. In fact, the audience was pretty energetic throughout (first time I’d seen anything that could be described as a mosh pit at a gig I’ve been at in about a decade and a half), and Feel the Pain got them pushing and shoving like it was 1993. One clown kept trying to crowdsurf, even as he kept being dropped to the floor. There’s always one.
Then came a pair of key early tracks: the mighty Sludgefeast and Raisans, from You’re Living All Over Me. They sounded as weird and heavy and claustrophobic as they ever had. With some key exceptions I’ll get to, I respond to early Dino much more than the group’s major-label material, made after Barlow was fired. Mascis isn’t the world’s most expansive melodist, so the twisty-turny structures of the early songs make them more compelling to me. It provides the interest that for me isn’t there on something like Out There.
But there is one mid-1990s Dinosaur Jr song I love. Start Choppin’. And so when Mascis hit that oddly Nile Rodgers-like guitar intro, I was delighted. They did a good version, but this was one of those occasions where I’m so into the studio recording that any live version that doesn’t copy it exactly is going to disappoint me slightly. The tempo seemed a bit too fast, and Mascis’s solo didn’t have the tension and release of his studio effort, which begins as noise and then takes flight when he suddenly breaks into a glorious melodic section that shows off the flashier end of his technique.
Budge and Freakscene went over as well as you’d expect them to, and were delivered coolly, with no fuss, then there was a real treat as they finished the set with Forget the Swan, from their debut, Dinosaur. Mascis-penned but Barlow-sung, Forget the Swan is one of their best early songs, but it’s always been better live than on its anaemic studio incarnation. I wasn’t expecting them to play it, and they pretty much nailed it. Barlow’s delivery is of course massively more assured than it was in 1985, and he and Murph were brick-wall solid as Mascis wailed on top for four minutes or so to end the set, leaving his guitar screaming as the band walked off.
The versions of Tarpit and Raisans during the encore were a little perfunctory, as in honesty, they couldn’t top the way they’d ended the regular set.
So while it was maybe a notch or two below what I’d hoped for, a lot of which I’d put down to the venue just not being right for them, I enjoyed finally seeing them play, and I love the fact that Dinosaur Jr are still together with Barlow and Mascis are working side by side when for years there was such animosity (at least on Lou’s part), and that they’re making records that stand proudly with the work they did in their youth. So few other bands can say that.