Editor’s Note: Last night, 1980s alt-rock legends Dinosaur Jr. finished a seven-night run of shows at New York‘s Bowery Ballroom to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their debut album, with guest appearances by the likes of Henry Rollins, Jeff Tweedy, Kurt Vile, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine, Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü, Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, and um, comedians Fred Armisen and Eugene Mirman. It was the latest chapter in a surprising third act by a band with a more checkered history than most: splitting acrimoniously at the cusp of mainstream success, carrying on for years as a glorified solo project for singer/guitarist J Mascis, then reuniting almost a decade later with a surprisingly vital original lineup who are still going strong today. And, while I obviously wasn’t there for the Bowery shows, I’m proud to say that I did catch the reunited Dinosaur (“Dinosaur Sr.,” har har) just over ten years ago, at a crowded and unseasonably sweaty show in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Below is my writeup of that show: still one of my most cherished concert memories, and the one and only time being a music blogger has gotten me free admission to a coveted event. My life, and my hearing, has been one long downhill slide since then. – Z.H.
It was only about fifteen years ago when a “special intimate show” by J Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III–the original and greatest lineup of Dinosaur Jr.–could very well have culminated in onstage fisticuffs. But times have changed, and as demonstrated by J’s fellow U-Mass alumnus Frank Black and the Pixies, the last few years have been kind to the alt-rock reunion set. A cynic might say the price was finally right for Mascis and Barlow to bury their hatchet; but if there were any cynics left in the Blind Pig when the notoriously volatile threesome hit the stage Monday night, they were eating their words within minutes. Simply put, this was an awe-inspiring show: one that lived up to the band’s prehistoric moniker not with tarpit-bound irrelevance, but with a primal and monumental ferocity.
Opening with the now two-decade-old “Gargoyle,” Dinosaur made good use of J’s and Lou’s Marshall stacks right from the start, letting loose tidal waves of pure volume while the club’s P.A. system struggled to stay afloat. Somehow, though, the lopsided amp-to-vocals ratio fit the band’s approach; Mascis’ trademark drawl sounded almost subliminal, while the occasional howls from Barlow’s side of the stage seemed paradoxically more intense muffled under layers of guitar noise. Besides, Dinosaur Jr. never were much of a vocalist’s band. They were, and remain, indie rock for closet guitar geeks–and in that respect, they were undoubtedly in top form. Virtually motionless in his position stage right, his lank curtain of hair now turned almost entirely gray, J spat out one fiery solo after another, stretching songs to twice their recorded length and hammering through “Sludgefeast” with a viciousness that made it sound even more like a Sabbath Bloody Sabbath outtake than usual.
Lou and Murph weren’t exactly slouching, either. By song number four (“Lose“), the drummer had stripped to the waist, while Barlow played with such intensity throughout that he ended up snapping a bass string mid-set. Together the trio were unstoppable, barreling through a marathon of classics from their first two albums, with a handful of B-sides and stand-out tracks from 1988’s Bug thrown in for good measure. “Freak Scene” killed, of course. But of even more interest was “The Wagon” from post-Barlow record Green Mind, which received its live debut at the Blind Pig; its effortless, unexpected performance cementing at long last that Dinosaur Jr. remain a musical force to be reckoned with.
And, fifteen years on, they’re still the unlikeliest rock band on the planet: J, the same introverted guitar player you probably kicked around garage bands with in high school; Lou, the same bookish misfit who just discovered hardcore punk; and Murph, the Ringo of college rock, probably the only one in the band you’d actually want to know in person. This reunion isn’t notable just because of its patent improbability–though that alone should make you want to rush out and buy tickets while you can. Seeing Dinosaur Jr. in person reminds one of the massive influence they’ve had on alternative music for the last two decades…and just how boring indie rock has become without them. Sure, their sound served as the blueprint for basically all ’90s guitar rock, while Mascis’ writing taught Kurt Cobain and his ilk pretty much everything they needed to know about the art of the apathetic love song. But the bands to follow Dinosaur and do it well are sorely outnumbered by those who merely borrowed from them their slacker sensibilities and lack of stage presence. In short, these originators are still the best; and with a live show as good as this, here’s hoping they stick around for a while.
If you also missed this week’s shows, you can still partake in the 30th anniversary festivities by streaming 1985’s Dinosaur (Jr.) on Spotify below: