Thursday, October 4, 2012

Dinosaur Jr. - Live In The Middle East - slight update

I'll be seeing the guys at Fitzgerald's in Houston tomorrow night. So in celebration, here's a repost of my year-old review of a seven year-old concert DVD. I wonder what the young people wear to their rock and roll shows these days. I believe I shall go with dungarees.
2007, 83 min., unrated video says... the DVD naturally corrects their one fault live, past and present: they can't be ear-splittingly loud when you control the volume. Instead, the mix is hot hot hot: bassist Lou Barlow's Rickenbacker rips and the distorted edge on guitarist J Mascis's Marshall amp could strip paint off walls, while head-down baldie drummer Murph looks like he's slinging floor beams. Just ungodly!!!

The 73rd Virgin says... Well okay then. The band from Amherst, Massachussetts, nibbled at the edges of wide popularity from roughly 1987 until they petered out in 1997. Their 1988 semi-hit "Freak Scene" is one of the strangest almagams of power pop, speed metal, and alternative folk that you'll ever hear - with a crushing guitar rave-up - and it was three years before Nirvana. Notice how hard they worked at making a professional looking video.

Somewhere along the line they were called Dinosaur, but they were sued by an old hippie band with the same name, so, characteristically, they became Dinosaur Jr. But leader/guitarist J. Mascis and bassist/second fiddle Lou Barlow were constantly at odds so Mascis disbanded in 1989, fired everyone, and then re-formed the next day without Barlow, who for a time was so destitute that he went back to being a hospital orderly.

Mascis and the re-formed Dinosaur Jr returned with several fine if somewhat similar collections, appeared on late night TV a LOT (see YouTube), scraped into the bottom of the charts with songs like "Start Choppin" and the timely, Clintonian, "Feel the Pain", but then just sort of stopped, as a delightfully titled Best of collection, "Ear-Bleeding Country" seemed to mark the end.

Barlow re-surfaced in the 90s with the band Sebadoh who had several minor hits, and then a big hit, "Natural One" from "The Kids" soundtrack, with one of his side-projects, Folk Implosion. says of him "arguably the most prolific songwriter of his generation, Lou Barlow has also been one of the most influential". I must admit, I truly had no idea...

Anyway, Mascis made a few solo albums including the notoriously awful Martin & Me, plus a couple more as J. Mascis and the Fog. So when news came that Mascis, Barlow, and drummer Murph were reforming for several concerts in 2005, it was a pleasant, but worrying, surprise. Would this just be another bunch of cash-strapped has-beens slogging for lucre?

True, there was no previous professional video, or even live album, of these three, and Mascis really needs to be captured. Even when young he was one of the strangest Rainman-esque creatures in the rock pantheon, and now that he's taken on the visage of a slightly overweight swami this at least keeps him in one place long enough to be observed.

This video from two 2005 shows - one at a club called The Middle East - is first and foremost a relief. They play with notable energy, regardless of their age. Mascis' voice is as strangled as ever (it has been described as a west Massachusetts drawl), but fans have had twenty years to get used to it. For a long-time but unknowledgeable fan, it's kind of surprising how the squall and thrash of their studio albums hides Barlow's bass. Here he plays with a pick and is really more a loud rhythym guitar while Mascis plays what fans lovingly call "face melter" guitar solos, and drummer Murph just never lets up. The incredibly cramped stage helps, restricting fan participation to some serious head-bobbing. Lawyer avoidance causes me to keep these clips to a reasonable length - but you probably don't mind.

The last 15 minutes switch to a more breathable venue with room for a good old-fashioned mosh pit.

The final encore is a fan favorite of their massacred version of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" in which Mascis takes one of the most beloved of 80s guitar lines and wah-wahs it into the ground.

If you're not a fan, this probably won't make you one. You won't understand a single lyric, except maybe Barlow's typically soaring repeated chorus on "Forget the Swan" and maybe something like "come on babe". Most of these songs are from their three 1980s albums, so there's really nothing new.

If this was all there was, it would be kind of sweet and sad. Instead they had a Hollywood moment and made IMO the best studio CD of their career and maybe the decade, with 2007's "Beyond", and followed up in 2009 with the almost as good "Farm", with extensive touring to boot.

Below from YouTube is 2009 footage of their most recent semi-hit "Pieces" showing them as pop-savvy and anti-pop as ever. May they rawk forever on.

Update: I just bought their newest 2012 CD, "I Bet On Sky". The magic continues. How nice.

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