Dinosaur Jr. close out US ‘Bug’ tour with noise, insight

by Ryan Snyder

Dinosaur Jr.’s Lou Barlow blows eardrums at the Cat’s Cradle. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Like sands through the hourglass, so is the meme of bands putting together tours around the deconstruction of their classic records. Dinosaur Jr. has already been there before, running through a one-night stand of their 1987 album You’re Living All Over Me the year after the original lineup decided they liked each other enough to start performing and recording again. Their latest tour, which came to the Cat’s Cradle Monday night, exhumes a piece of music that few DJ fans would declare their favorite, even among the band’s early era. Bug is, however, a marvel that will eventually fill more than one chapter of the J. Mascis memoir. It was the one where his iron grip on the band’s voluminous sound amidst transitioning to a major label would inevitably prove the last straw for bassist Lou Barlow, and bring to a close the first act of one of alt-rock’s seminal bands.

A traveling sideshow of ’80s hardcore curio accompanied most of the album’s short run down the east coast, that is until super group OFF! split from the tour the night before. The Keith Morris-fronted group was but a single degree of separation from the headliners as “the other” Black Flag frontman and self-avowed Dinosaur Jr. super fan Henry Rollins was recruited to grill the band, including the unassailably tight-lipped Mascis. Instead of OFF!, the eighth and final night of the interview was preceded by a living room set from Superchunk primary and Merge Records cofounder Mac McCaughan. The nine-song set, which Rollins acknowledged by thanking his “openers”, included minimalized versions of Superchunk songs both new and old (“Tie A Rope to the Back of the Bus” and “Crossed Wires”), some mid-period Portastatic (“Noisy Night”), and an errant Misfits cover (“Children In Heat”). McCaughan was completely comfortable in front of the home crowd, even though he commented that playing alone was a something totally foreign to him. His mistakes, he said after tripping over a riff to “Driveway to Driveway”, were more obvious. With a band you still have to learn to play together, a notion that DJ would explore rather intimately only moments later.

Credit the garrulous Rollins for extracting more than a mum from Mascis for that single night, let alone over eight interviews. Most of the questions were justifiable repeats from night to night — why the band adopted their name, how Barlow and drummer Murph achieved their airtight dynamic, how Bug itself came into being. The responses, somewhat shockingly, were candid and genuine. Most interestingly was the probing of their personal lives amidst the struggles of their earliest years. Barlow and Mascis both held menial jobs in a nursing home and gas station respectively (You know there’s a guy somewhere with a story about how he used to frequent the gas station where Mascis worked). They would quit to go on tour, only to try to get rehired at its conclusion, that is until one day the post-tour hangover simply compelled Mascis to completely give up anything that wasn’t music.

When the conversation turned to Bug, Mascis explained that some of the music was never even meant for the stage. It was simply too weird, an odd statement given their catalog is predicated on abusive levels of volume and feedback intended to drown out all but the most superficial aspects of Mascis’ jangly melodies. As such, most of the album remained unperformed until this tour, but “The Pond Song” and “The Post” were tabled for a few moments longer as they offered a warm-up of “Forget the Swan” and “The Lung” that rivaled the encore of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” in sentimentalism.

Like a slacker answer to Jerry Garcia, the white-haired Mascis sound-checked a bar of Chicago blues when they were finally ready to introduce the hipster kiss-off “Freak Scene”, and suddenly the imposing stack of Marshalls behind him exploded with a cochlea-busting amount of noise. Rollins commented in the interview that Dinosaur Jr. was the second loudest band he’d ever seen and only after Motorhead, though there’s the case that given the size of each band’s typical venue, Dinosaur Jr.’s club sound is vastly more assaultive than Motorhead’s theater-level sound.

However dramatic the onslaught of noise was at first, you acclimate quickly thanks to the near instantaneous hearing loss. It’s only when you turn to your company, say a few songs in, and don’t hear any of the words coming out of your mouth that the effects become apparent. The set wasn’t a mere rote interpretation of the album, either. Barlow turned to his eight-foot stack — still dwarfed by Mascis’ — and eased the distortion that concluded “Let It Ride” upwards, crossing over the merely painful threshold and into disorientation and confusion. The set was effectively an endurance march to the climatic “Don’t,” the holy spirit of which dragged the disaffect in the front to the stage to help scream out the song’s lone lyric, “Why, why don’t you like me?” That too was eventually lost in the din of feedback and distortion.

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