By the time Dinosaur Jr. bassist Lou Barlow returned to the stage to inform a waiting audience there would be no encore, this reviewer was more than ready for the night to be over. “Our drummer’s throwing up,” said Barlow, referring to Murph, the bald-headed slugger who, if ill, did not let on as he spent most of the ninety minute set assaulting his drum kit with a young punk’s intensity. However, Murph’s intensity and dedication were one of few highlights of Dinosaur Jr.’s performance Friday night.
Before the show began, the buzzword in the theater was “loud.” This is a band that plays at full volume and is known for it. Middle-aged and young alike were prepared with earplugs, ready to take the sound waves without taking any damage, and the band didn’t let anyone down if they came looking for a sonic blast. If they came for the actual music, however, they may have felt otherwise.
Murph and Barlow, who account for two of the band’s three members, bashed and thrashed away on stage, and while entertaining to watch, their performance was not the right fit with guitarist/vocalist J Mascis’s meek and mumbled vocals. Barely audible and even less intelligible, if one didn’t already know the song, he or she would be lost to know what was being said over the wall shaking kick drum, effect-driven guitar and groaning bass.
To the credit of Barlow, he worked to keep the audience involved, telling stories of the band’s formation, having fun with the word “isthmus” and actually showing interest as he worked over his low-slung Rickenbacker. But it was the attitude of Mascis that was the night’s biggest downer. Mascis, in general, seemed bored and barely awake for the first half of the show, and the band’s performance as a whole suffered for it.
Great album tracks like “Budge,” “Freak Scene” or “No Bones” from 1988′s Bug or “Watch the Corners” from this year’s I Bet on Sky brought up the crowd, but the momentum was never sustained. As the band would finish a song, it would break out into short improv jams that never went anywhere and then would stand around as Mascis would retune. Although a necessary part of performance, it was just one more break that would bring down the mood when the level of enthusiasm was already low. Even a several minute long version of “Forget the Swan” from the 1985 debut Dinosaur could not propel the group out of the slump.
When the band launched into one of their biggest hits, “Feel The Pain,” the crowd livened up, and a spontaneous mosh pit sprung up on the floor as if it really were 1994 all over again. As Mascis sang, “I feel nothing,” all I could think was “me neither.”
Opening that evening was Shearwater, hailing from Austin, Texas, and co-founded by Okkervil River’s Jonathan Meiburg. Where Dinosaur Jr. came up short, Shearwater delivered.
Meiburg’s vocals soared over the mix of keys, bass and the clockwork precision of Danny Reisch’s drums. The band as a whole came through on songs like “Breaking the Yearlings,” the staccato piano-laced “You As You Were” and in the slow march drone of “Dread Sovereign,” all of which are from February’s Animal Joy – an album that would not be out of place if it were slipped in with the later works of David Bowie.
While the music of Shearwater showed the influences of Radiohead, Bowie and even touches of Black Sabbath with distortion heavy power chords, they are very much their own band. Unknown to many of the crowd, Shearwater captured the attention of the audience and held it with melodic songs interwoven with loop effects, MIDI keys and double percussion attacks. This band played as if it was the headliner and refused to be just the “opening act” that made good background music while a person waits for their beer. By the end of the evening, it was obvious Shearwater was the sheer force of the night, while Dinosaur Jr. played like it was going extinct.