Until yesterday the only Lou Barlow gig I’d ever been to was a New Folk Implosion show at Reading 2001 where the trio played mostly older songs (Dare to be Surprised-era stuff). It was great, and it was a surprise to me how bloodless the New Folk Implosion’s record was. So I was looking forward to Sebadoh, but with no real expectations. They’re not young guys anymore. They never really were about reaching out and trying to convert a young, mass audience, and anyway, I’m more than aware of their reputation in the 1990s for being shambolic and inconsistent, albeit with the potential to suddenly transcend their limitations and become spellbinding. Whatever was going to happen would happen, and I was cool with that,
So the first half of the set was a surprise. The frequent swapping of guitar, bass and lead vocals that Barlow and Loewenstein have always had to do at Sebadoh shows has been replaced by extended mini sets, with each songwriter taking six or seven tunes in a row before passing off to the other. At the beginning of the gig, with Barlow stage right at the lead vocal mic, guitar in hand, the band tore through their songs without pausing for breath, heavy on tunes from Bakesale and Harmacy, with a few highlights from new record Defend Yourself (such as album opener I Will).
During Loewenstein’s turn at the mic (even heavier on Bakesale tunes – Careful, Not Too Amused, Shit Soup and Drama Mine all appearing), though, the evening lost its focus. The tuner pedal the bass was plugged into began playing up, a fact which the band and the sound engineer struggled to diagnose for several songs, and Loewenstein abandoned the set list (literally crumpling it up and throwing it away). The band played the rest of the show off the top of their heads, taking requests, swapping guitars and retuning them more frequently, and doodling between songs. They did it in such good humour that they mostly got away with it – that Loewentsein gives good stage patter didn’t surprise me much, but Barlow’s levity was more unexpected – but the pace of the set slowed noticeably and my attention began to wander at times.
Dingwalls is a good venue for them: small enough to be sold out and buzzing, big enough to feel like a for-real gig. The group are pretty well preserved — despite Barlow’s current resemblance, pointed out by my friend Sara, to Jerry Garcia, all curly mop and facial hair and glasses — and played with a level of power and commitment that many younger bands would struggle to emulate. Sebadoh in the 1990s, with the erratic Eric Gaffney and then the barely competent Bob Fay behind the drums, couldn’t play their way out of a paper bag, but with Barlow an improved guitarist and always a solid bass player, Loewenstein competent at any instrument he turns his hand to, and new drummer Bob D’Amico a hard-hitting, no bullshit rock drummer, the latest line-up of Sebadoh was tight and powerful, and far, far louder than I’d been primed for.
I don’t want to be one of those guys always moaning about sound, but it would be nice if more live sound engineers worked from the vocals downwards – as in, if the vocals are this volume, how loud can the drums be without stepping on them? As opposed to, how loud can I make the drums and guitars while still having the vocals be just about perceptible? Indie rock is not blessed with many talented vocalists, but Barlow is one of them. It was a shame his voice was often so hard to discern. As it was, my ears are still ringing from the harsh cymbals and guitar sound, 24 hours after the show ended. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have worried. Nowadays, I curse myself for not having taken earplugs. Yet this was not a balanced mix that happened to be loud, so it’s not just me being a fuddy-duddy; the drums and guitars were too loud.
A bigger issue, and one that I feel like a bit of a heel bringing up, is that Lou did comparatively few of the songs I most wanted to hear. He’s been forthcoming in interviews and in song about the end of his marriage, and given that the majority of the songs I talk about (if not all of them) are love songs to his ex, I can see why he might prefer the bouncier or more aggressive songs from his archive right now, but Beauty of the Ride and Too Pure did hint at what the gig might have been if we’d had just a little more Soul and Fire, so to speak.