Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Concertgoer: J Mascis, Kurt Vile & Fauna

There's a moment during Dinosaur Jr shows, usually during the encore, when J Mascis rips into the opening chords of "Freak Scene." Five seconds later, when the drums and bass kick in, the roof has already been blown off. Two and a half minutes in, after Lou and Murph drop out, J returns to those opening chords and croaks
Sometimes I don't thrill you
Sometimes I think I'll kill you
Just don't let me fuck up will you
Cause when I need a friend it's still you
ceding that last line to the audience. It's cathartic, every time, and the lyric is a great metaphor for Dinosaur Jr's internal dynamic and live performances--brilliant but inconsistent, fractious, and almost accidently life-affirming. It's also the only moment during Dinosaur concerts that spotlights the laconic Mascis, and he basically surrenders it.

So a solo acoustic show by Mascis leaves a lot of questions, despite some obvious precedents. The tour follows an album, Several Shades Of Why, that's mostly solo and largely acoustic. But with no band to hide behind--or blast out noise with--Mascis actually seemed comfortable and engaged. He occupied the spotlight modestly, with a hint of charm. He even shared an anecdote--at Dinosaur shows, Lou Barlow handles all the banter--about how Murph's taste in cassettes resulted in his Eddie Brickell cover. It seems the Dinosaur drummer favored Zappa in the tour van, but introduced Mascis to the song "Circle Of Friends" on the road back in the 80's.

A seated Mascis began the show with newer material. It was fantastic live, Mascis sounding present in a way he isn't always on Shades. The album's best songs--"Is It Done," "Listen To Me," and the title track--cast Mascis as a forlorn troubadour. It's a new role, but there's always been a hint of John Fogerty and "Dead Flowers" Jagger in his voice. As on the record, the loose, Laurel Canyon vibe fits naturally within the Mascis landscape of confusion and self-doubt. On Dinosaur records, Mascis buries this emotion inside the maelstrom; on this new one, uncertainty takes the forefront. A few songs got away from Mascis, however, as they do on Shades. But Mascis was at ease and in control--it's always hard to tell, but it seemed like he was enjoying himself.

He made liberal use of a pedal that transformed his acoustic Martin into something electric-sounding. Mascis employed the pedal more often as the show went on, and brought out a number of Dinosaur songs. "The Wagon," "Little Fury Things," and "Thumb" sounded great, still resonant at lower volumes. A couple tunes could've used the full Dinosaur treatment, notably "Ocean In The Way." The filter's fuzz couldn't quite match the wild precision of a true Mascis solo, even with Mascis playing.

The highlight this evening was a whiplash "Not You Again." There was no "Freak Scene," but "Again" mimics the bouncy noise-pop and drawled self-doubt: "I got no advice bout anything/Just fuck it up yourself." And the way the crowd responded, it could've been "Freak Scene." J spat out the last lines fast and off-beat, a bit of self-sabotage during an unusually enlivened show.

Playing before Mascis was his touring partner, Kurt Vile, who made a brief appearance during J's set. I've encountered Vile's music sporadically, and mostly, it has failed to connect. I find it diffuse and underdeveloped, in the way that lesser Atlas Sound songs are. Live, this was not an issue. Vile and his equally long-haired band, the Violators, transform even the singer-songwritery moments into straight rock and roll. Vile's songs are rock as a bedridden autodidact might write it--Bradford Cox again being a good reference point. The Violators play loud, ending many songs with frenzied jams. But as long as Vile remains such an indistinct presence, I can't see this band getting much better. Not every group needs a Jagger, but until Kurt Vile's delivery becomes distinctly Vile, his music is doomed to be just good rock and roll.*

Which is not to say I didn't enjoy Vile and the Violators--they were a pleasant surprise. So were the openers, Fauna. A Minneapolis group from the 90's, which once included Linda Pitmon, Fauna reunited recently after seventeen years on hiatus. As I walked in, the group was playing with a flautist, cribbing from Loveless, and doing so pretty well. Sans flute, they sound quite a lot like Teenage Fanclub. All their songs are at least a minute too long, but they seemed thrilled to be on stage, namechecking Where You Been and playing like men excited to escape their dayjobs--as high school teachers or IT guys, if I had to guess. They also had an excellently packaged CD that, when propped open, becomes a theremin.

*Strange as that sounds...

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