The room was dark and thick with anticipation. The sparse, older crowd could hear the clink of glass as the man in a baseball cap sat down with his two acoustic guitars. He was surrounded by just sheet music, speakers, mouth spray and some handkerchief-towels. The audience at the High Noon Saloon Friday night held a collective breath until the guitarist J Mascis began to strum.
As the artist began to make his art on stage, my fond summer memories of blasting his unique brand of 1990’s alternative rock in the car and air jamming along began to dissipate. The crowd grew restless and prepared for a night of musical monotony and apathy. J Mascis performed for his fervent followers as if he were giving a private show in his basement to a small group of people he did not like. He muttered about three nondescript phrases throughout the show and just allowed the music to do the talking, but it didn’t say much either.
The show became more of a display or exhibit to see a master perform his craft rather than experiencing the music in a way that can’t be done in a detached, prerecorded setting. The Friday night show was so one-dimensional, it felt like proximity to the musical great was the highlight rather than the music that earned him a high level of stardom.
When you listen to his produced material, it is clear that Mascis is an incredibly talented guitarist; he is highly prolific and he understands how to meld instruments together to create a powerful sound. In 2012, he was ranked fifth on “Spin’s 100 Greatest Guitarists of all Time,” above Prince and below Kurt Cobain. He has been producing albums since the mid-1980s and has collaborated with numerous artists on several different bands and projects. He has also produced six different solo LPs including Tied to a Star, the album he is promoting with this tour.
The concert did mirror the album’s rich, deep vocals that sound like a mix of Cobain’s dark, sultry sound and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden’s raspy rock sound. He also experimented with feedback on his guitar and vocals. He played tracks from his solo albums including some that were produced during the 90s.
However, by the nature of performing solo, he could not produce that full sound of previous albums. Instead, many of his classic, acclaimed ballads fell flat on stage and subsequently lost their power over me to make me belt back the solid lyrics, slap an imaginary bass and strum an imaginary guitar.
Because he was just a singular man with just two guitars, Mascis had to fill out the sound with a prerecorded mixture of bass, rhythm guitar that syncopated with his guitar beats and guitar that produced a sharp “wall of sound” that worked in opposition to his guitar beats. If viewers didn’t immediately pick up on the recorded ensemble, they found out when Mascis paused and removed his hands from his instrument to blow his nose in his handkerchief-towels or to use a mouth spray and the recording continued the play. He often read from his sheet music and added barely any performance finesse.
When he played “Every Morning” off his latest LP, midway through the show, he came into his own more and seemed to feel more comfortable at the mic. He swayed back and forth as he played but still never took pause to engage with the crowd.
There were a few fleeting moments of redemption, when Mascis engaged in the performance art. During one song he began to drum on his guitar with his hands momentarily, adding the only percussion of the show.
When Mascis broke out into indulgent guitar riffs, which he has built his fame on, it gave the crowd a glimpse at the man’s brilliance. But they often felt tangential to the song and he occasionally masked the riffs with his prerecorded wall of sound, which felt very disjointed and overpowering.
He ended the first set with a quick “Have a nice day,” and sauntered off the stage. After less than a minute of mild obligatory clapping, he took the stage again for an encore to play for another few minutes before closing the show with “All right, that’s it, see you next time.”
Members of the crowd were angered by his crass dismissal. But it perfectly embodied the mood of the show: curt and unexciting.