Written by Connor Davis
I’ve been a fan of Dinosaur Jr. ever since I stumbled upon their formative and insanely good second album You’re Living All Over Me (1987). Its brilliant mixture of in-your-face guitar action, whimpered, Neil Young-esque vocals and punk rock tightness packed underneath mountains of sludgy goodness scratched all the itches I didn’t know I had. The band’s seamless blend of classic rock guitar dexterity and bravado (evidenced by J Mascis’s penchant for creamy guitar solos) with punk earnestness, tone, and volume is uncanny. And while You’re Living All Over Me might represent the apotheosis of this blend, their entire discography follows this sonic theme.
On November 2, I went to see the band at The Fonda Theater in L.A. This was my second time seeing J, Lou, and Murph make noise. The first was on October 18, 2017, at the Observatory in Santa Ana.
Interestingly, the opening band was the same as last time– Easy Action (named after the 1970 Alice Cooper album). They’re okay. I feel like the best way to describe them is as a hard rock band with obvious punk influences. I think it’s notable though to mention that Easy Action is fronted by vocalist John Brannon, who’s known as the frontman for 80’s hardcore punk legends Negative Approach, and later for the punk rock/garage rock/noise rock, etc. band Laughing Hyenas.
After Easy Action’s set finished and the stage curtains closed up (this is a unique touch at the Fonda. Kind of builds anticipation. Fits with the whole 1920’s aesthetic the venue’s going for too), people pulled their phones out or turned to talk to their friends or ventured over to the bar for a drink. Several people took advantage of the newly formed holes in the front of the crowd where I was standing (a bit to the left so I could get a good view of J) and moved up to fill them. In no time at all, the place was packed, which was a very physical reminder that the show had been completely sold out.
The anticipation of the crowd became more palpable as the minutes dragged. There was one middle-aged man to my right who was getting a bit too fidgety. Maybe too many overpriced alcoholic beverages? Finally, we started to hear some movement behind the curtains — a kick drum and a few strings being plucked. Then suddenly, the first notes spilled out, and everyone who wasn’t already fixated on the stage now eagerly turned towards it. The curtains opened up, and the band was greeted with fervent applause. Those opening chords belonged to “Bulbs of Passion.” I remember thinking it was an interesting choice to open their set with, as it’s kind of a deep cut; it was originally released as the B side to their first-ever single “Repulsion” in 1985. “Bulbs of Passion” starts off with a lazy, almost psychedelic guitar strumming with equally lazy singing by J, which soon gives way to heavy chords and Lou’s shouts of “BULBS OF PASSION!” Around the 2:30 mark, the song evolves into becoming a lighter and less queasy, less claustrophobic listening experience. But this respite is brief; the song plummets straight back into that heavy mood and stays there, finishing with some twisted guitar solos.
At the end of “Bulbs of Passion,” the famously laconic frontman mumbled out a sincere “thanks” and launched into “Tarpit,” (off You’re Living All Over Me). The song opens with a simple two-part guitar intro centered around a few chords. Drums are slammed in for a split moment after a couple of measures. At about the twenty second mark, the song transitions into an expansive, two-chord sonic mural with J’s tired vocals dripping across the proverbial canvas. The song ends with J indulging in his guitar pedals, creating a cacophonous noise collage. “Tarpit” is easily among my top five Dinosaur Jr. songs.
I was very pleasantly surprised when they played “No Bones” next. In my opinion, it’s one of their most underrated tunes, which I imagine is due to its position on 1988’s Bug; it directly follows the anthemic and extremely popular “Freak Scene.”
Freak Scene was played of course, along with other setlist staples, “Feel the Pain” (off 1994’s Without a Sound), Going Down (off 2016’s Give a Glimpse Of What Yer Not), “Pieces” (off 2009’s Farm), and “The Wagon” (off 1991’s Green Mind). “The Wagon” is another one of my top fives. Hearing the song live gave me goosebumps.
Many of the songs took on an entirely new life when the band played them. Some surprising highlights for me were “Feel the Pain” and “Gargoyle.” While “Feel the Pain” is the band’s only radio hit, the studio version just never seemed all that special to me. But when they played it live, there was so much more vitality. Maybe Lou’s bass playing added some depth (Lou was kicked out of the band after the Bug tour in the late ’80s, so he didn’t appear on the studio version of the song). The extra boost from the mile-high Marshall stacks behind the band also didn’t hurt. And “Gargoyle” (from 1985’s Dinosaur), which is a song I completely forgot existed, sounded fresh and essential.
If there’s any slight criticism I have about the concert, it’s with the setlist. I do wish they pulled more material from their post-reunion albums like Beyond (2007) and Farm. They did play several songs from their most current album Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, which I was very happy about. It’s a fantastic album.
For Lou’s “Left/Right,” the second to last track on Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, J traded in his guitar for bass, leaving Lou to play guitar and sing. This was the only song J didn’t play guitar on. On the band’s albums, J will usually relinquish some control and let Lou write two songs and sing on them. Those songs are always really good. Lou is a very accomplished songwriter and has found success with his band Sebadoh (which he founded after he was booted from Dinosaur Jr.) and as a solo artist.
Here’s Lou’s song “Rude” from 2012’s I Bet on Sky.
If you’ve only listened to Dinosaur Jr.’s records, you wouldn’t necessarily think their live performances would be so earsplittingly loud. And you’d be sorely mistaken. When I saw them in 2017, I foolishly did not bring along ear protection, which ended up being a critical mistake; my ears felt like they were filled with waterlogged cotton balls for several days after. This time I was prudent and brought some cheap foam ones from home (the sickly purple-colored kind). My friend never wears earplugs when we go see shows, but halfway through the first song, he turned to me with a nod implying I was right, that they are ridiculously loud. He made the aforementioned mistake of assuming they were an average decibel kind of band based on what he heard on their albums. He eagerly accepted the pair of extra earplugs I had and buried them in his ears. While the quality of the sound and the full dynamic effects offered by the band were inevitably diminished by wearing earplugs, I walked away with my eardrums unscathed.
There was one encore, of course. It didn’t take much raucous applause from the crowd to coax the guys back out. They played stellar versions of “Kracked” and “Sludgefeast,” both off You’re Living All Over Me.
And for their final final song of the night, they brought out John Brannon to sing and guest Clem Burke (of Blondie fame) to play drums. They launched into an incendiary cover of “T.V. Eye” by the Stooges.
Honestly, Dinosaur Jr.’s albums don’t capture their sonic potential as much as their live performances do. Live, you can truly experience the unique blend of heaviness and subtlety. Of crispness and sludge. And seeing J work the neck of his guitar with wizard precision is an amazing experience. I highly recommend seeing them play if you have the opportunity to do so.