are no longer the volatile squad of twentysomething musicians anymore. Their individual personalities no longer conflict, cooler heads have prevailed, and they're back on the road and in the studio. Over twenty years after they started out as band, Dinosaur Jr. remain rocking in the free world. Both guitarist J Mascis
and bassist Lou Barlow
still have full heads of hair, and their musical output the past few years has been ineffable. Lucky for us, they're still willing to crank out live performances, and last night they were generous enough to have a tour stop in Santa Ana
at the Observatory
While being interviewed for our piece on the band, Lou Barlow had mentioned to us how incredible it might have been to see them perform in the eighties, and for a few moments there we had mental flashes of how it would have been like. It probably would have been grimier, there would be more screeches and squawks from the instruments, and some songs would have been played at a faster speed than normal. There might have been more scraggly heads of hair thrashing and bobbing throughout the audience, and more cross-venue exchanges of thrown bottles. It probably would have been a definitively "underground" experience, with all the elements of suspense, drunken danger, and loud equipment mixed in.
What we saw last night, however, was of a whole different beast. It was equally sense-splintering, but it was a performance worthy of a band that had come into maturity and had built up expectations over the years. The drumming was vacuum-seal tight, the guitar-playing was both bombarding and melodic, and the bass was on a relatively detectable side of the low end.
Nestled to the side in his own wall of Marshalls, J. Mascis' and his guitar were just as loud and piercing as you would expect. There were no frenzied theatrics from his part of the stage, just some basic head-and-body shifting and a sound that rived through ears and speakers like a sharpened blunt force. The constant stream of solos was intense, but added an almost peaceful sort of harmony to the performance. When Mascis would switch to his signature blistery-yet-beautiful playing, Barlow's bass added a bluesy bounce to the show. You might not be able to hear the bass at home when you're ear canal-deep in a pair of headphones, but when it's being played right in front of your face the bass sounds thumping and far from muddy.
For the most part, the crowd was pretty passive for the entirety of the show. Everyone was probably just content to watch as their three indie heroes blasted through songs in front of them. The most movement probably came from Barlow's side of the stage, where he appeared to have been reenacting some of those '80s performances he mentioned to us. He swung his body and bass like an enthusiastic indie Slash, swayed his curled-collection of hair, and was the most talkative of the bunch. He may be approaching 50, but at the end of the day Barlow is still a career-musician, and life sure does appear to be fun for him.
We will never know what it was like to have seen Dinosaur Jr. at a pivotal point in their early heyday, but we don't think we will lose any sleep over it anytime soon. Last night was more than enough to prove to us that the phrase "they still have it" can be applied to the trio of J. Mascis, Lou Barlow, and Murph. Any fan of the band can find themselves in a state of rock-n-roll bliss in watching them perform, and Dinosaur Jr. do not need youth to be relevant or a solid live act. They just need to bring those instruments, and do what they've been doing for their career: play extraordinarily well.
Critic's Bias: Dinosaur Jr. were associated with Sonic Youth, and I have a Sonic Youth related tattoo. That's almost like having a permanent, personal connection with the band.
Random Notebook Dump: Each band member seemed to kind of be in their own part of the stage. They were slightly separate from each other, but always on the same page musically.
The Crowd: A bit older than the usual rock crowd, and more sedentary. There were a few people with gray locks just like J. Mascis though, which made for some peculiar double takes.