Dinosaur Jr. at the Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA, October 2, 2012. Photo by Jeff Pearson.
I left Tuesday’s Dinosaur Jr. show with a few questions on my mind. What in the world could have pushed an audience member to throwing punches at the end of a relatively tame mosh pit during the show’s closer, “Chunks?” At what point during the show did bassist Lou Barlow slip out of his shoes? How did he jump around with such disregard of inhibitions in socks? Wasn’t the stage slippery? Dangerous. It’s just a fact that people are thirteen percent more timid while wearing just socks. I guess that’s what separates the men from the boys, as they say. The commoners from the rock stars. The great thing about Dinosaur Jr., however, is that they don’t seem like rock stars. They play like them, that’s for sure. However, the three somewhat unassuming figures on stage churning out one of the loudest, most compelling sounds I’ve ever heard at a show seem just like regular guys, happy to be doing what they are doing for so long. Perhaps that’s why Barlow feels no timidity in only socks.
To start the night off was Shearwater, the “everywhere”-by-way-of Austin, Texas group fronted by Jonathan Meiburg. Formally of Okkervil River, Meiburg and Will Sheff started Shearwater in 1999 as a quieter foil to the literary folk-rock of their former band, but on Tuesday none of that was evident. The quintet willed the crowd out of its collective anxiety that can only come from a group of people so intent on seeing a band that an opening act only feels like a roadblock; by the end of Shearwater’s set they had won over quite a few people with loud and raw versions of songs throughout their discography. Songs that appeared subdued on record, such as “Open Your Houses (Basilisk)” and “Animal Life,” stand-out cuts from their latest record, Animal Joy, were turned into veritable juggernauts of sound. Meiburg’s vocals were crisp and cut through the venue buoyed by an explosive rhythm section. The supporting cast around Meiburg has changed a lot over the years, but Tuesday proved that the real focus of the band is the gorgeous songwriting—the live setting served those songs very well in amplifying the energy and preparing the crowd for the night ahead. Meiburg seemed giddy as he talked about seeing Dinosaur Jr. the night before, telling the crowd what a treat they were in for. To close the band’s set, Shearwater blasted through a positively punk rock version of home-town heroes R.E.M.’s “These Days,” finally breaking through to those at the Variety Playhouse not yet warmed to their sound. It was a perfect song to segue from their blend of lyric-centric indie rock to the all-out sonic assault that Dinosaur Jr. was to bestow upon the crowd.
The Amherst, Massachusetts trio took no time at all to unleash that assault. Before the curtain was even drawn to reveal the band was onstage, the opening notes of “See It On Your Side” came barreling out of the massive wall of Marshall stacks, seemingly pulling the curtain apart by sheer force of will. The closing number from their newest record, I Bet On Sky, “See It On Your Side” set the tone for Dinosaur Jr.’s entire show—guitarist J Mascis displayed a immense guitar tone that constantly teetered the line of completely brutal and utterly beautiful, most of the time both. Mascis would seamlessly alter his tone from thick rhythm guitar accompaniment to his somewhat delicate vocals to searing guitar solos, immediately working the crowd into a frenzy with just the first song.
Though the show was heaviest on the new record, Dinosaur Jr. showed the extensive nature of their back-catalog over the course of the evening. Having been reunited for about five years now, the original lineup of Mascis, Barlow and drummer, Murph, have really hit their stride again as a touring act together and have opened their repertoire up to songs such as “Start Choppin’,” “The Wagon,” and “Feel The Pain,” that the trio didn’t originally record together. Barlow and Murph had no problems taking those songs on and making them their own, with Barlow producing an explosive, thick sound unlike that of a typical bassist. The way he fired through riffs sounded like he was a bassist, rhythm and lead guitarist all rolled into one. There is a stark contrast between the demeanors of Mascis and Barlow; as my eyes peered from side to side of the stage, it was easy to note the way Mascis contemplatively swayed back and forth while ripping his guitar to shreds compared to how Barlow was positively electric on stage, bouncing around while ripping his bass guitar to shreds—in socks, lest you forget. Murph is the backbone of the band that keeps the contrasting styles tightly intertwined and wholly unified.
It speaks to the consistency of material that Dinosaur Jr. has put out over the years that new songs such as “Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know” and “Watch The Corners” stood out just as much as classic staples in the band’s catalog, like “Freak Scene” and “The Lung.” My girlfriend Jenna gave me a concert first as she busted out air-Guitar Hero when the band broke into the Without A Sound hit, “Feel The Pain.” Each song seemed to build on the momentum of the last, and by the time Barlow introduced “Training Ground,” a track by Deep Wound, Mascis and Barlow’s first band together—“first wave-and-a-half hardcore,” as Barlow put it—the Variety Playhouse was an absolute madhouse. The calmest person in the building was Mascis, perpetually swaying, completely focused on nailing every mammoth note. They closed the set out with a song from Dinosaur, the first record the band ever did, with “Forget The Swan.” If Deep Wound was first wave-and-a-half hardcore, Dinosaur-era Dinosaur Jr. was first-wave-and-three-quarters hardcore. First-wave-and-two-thirds hardcore, even. The very first track to introduce the world to the group, “Forget The Swan” truly showed how far this band has come over the years. When listening to the song on record, it is brimming with potential, while at the Variety Playhouse on Tuesday it was brimming with realized potential, with perfection.
Dinosaur Jr. was hardly off the stage before they came back out and delivered a punishing performance of the classic You’re Living All Over Me suite of “Kracked” and “Sludgefeast.” Arms were flailing in the crowd as Mascis and Barlow traded indelible riffs over Murph’s rumbling percussion. The placement of those two songs couldn’t have been better coming out of the encore break. They took advantage of the rabid crowd and expertly performed two of their most intense songs to date. “Sludgefeast,” with its tradeoff of chugging guitar theatrics and atmospheric tones, would have made the perfect end to the show, but Dinosaur Jr. wanted to give the crowd more. They introduced their friends Kevin Sweeney and Kyle Spence to take over bass and drums, respectively, as Murph and Barlow stepped out to take a microphone each. They ripped through a ferocious cover of Last Rights’ “Chunks,” pits were moshed, punches were thrown, and it was all over seemingly in the blink of an eye. None of my questions have been answered in the aftermath of what I witnessed Tuesday night, but one question that was forever looming in my mind up until the Dinosaur Jr. show was. Before seeing the trio redefine cool before my very eyes, I had always wondered what it took to be a rock star. I really should have known—perhaps I did, but didn’t want to accept it. All it takes is some serious chops, which is what makes Dinosaur Jr., in my eyes, serious rock stars.