Sebadoh at the Magic Stick
Detroit, April 21, 2004
As the world dies, the eyes of God grow bigger. Maybe, but Sebadoh just got leaner. Drifting into solo work since 1999’s frustrating The Sebadoh, principal operators Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein were spurred by some benefit one-offs to break out the old stuff and embark on a “Turboacoustic” tour of America. This isn’t Kiss’s umpteenth farewell, or that Hell Freezes Over bullshit (remember “Get Over It”? Ye gads!); no, Turboacoustic was Just Jason, Lou, and a chintzy silver boom box drummer, the kind you find at a second hand store. The motivation? Maybe the neocons aren’t the only group gettin’ sentimental over 1991.
“We’re Sebadoh, and we’re here to promote our new T-shirt.” The respectable crowd of indie greybeards (read: late twenties) and Wednesday night randoms were still filing toward the stage as Lou Barlow opened the evening with the obvious joke. “Have you heard Sebadoh’s new T-shirt?” longtime cohort Jason Loewenstein chimed in. “I heard it’s not that great.” With nothing to show or prove besides an aging catalog of indie source material, the Seba-duo tuned the acoustic guitar, turned up the electric bass, and unpaused the drummer. It’s tough to write without qualification, but the resulting set was decidedly, well, lo-fi.
With the pre-recorded CD’s rudimentary boom crash accompaniment, vintage ditties like “Ride the Darker Wave” or “New Worship” became next-generation dubs of their late ’80s cassette tape genesis. It was the Freed Weed, live in skittering person. Barlow and Loewenstein’s opening shtick had been an admission of their setup’s inherent absurdity. After all, Sebadoh’s sonics progressed considerably from the Sound Design days of Weed and III. The nineties saw the band ramble through screeching noise experiments, rueful electric guitar ballads, and Jason’s fractured, literate classic rock reduxes. They smoked a thousand cigarettes, but watched with scarred eyes as their indie rock patina glazed over the actual musical output. Sebadoh never seemed comfortable as pioneers, or anti-heroes to a scene, even if they were. And Barlow himself has gone on record panning his recorded past. This made the golden oldie jaunt of Turboacoustic a little puzzling, especially since its practice room-once removed setup shot straight back to those primordial daze on the Homestead. Whatever. Whether or not they were heroes, they were always mercurial.
The career arc was skeletal through renderings of “Three Times a Day,” “Rebound,” “Nothing Like You,” “License to Confuse,” and “Rebound”; Lou scraped away at two acoustics, but the tone of Jason’s Rickenbacker was identical to the albums. The digital drummer continued to hold his own, laying down scrappy, nearly cymbal-less rhythms that sounded like they were recorded drunk and high in a cavernous airport bathroom. And though each track ended with a touch of the pause button, diehards in the audience wouldn’t be ignored. “Pound My Skinny Head!” they screamed. “True Hardcore!” Sheesh, these guys – it’s always guys – were yelling out Sentridoh stuff that was mostly noise and tape loops to begin with. Barlow and Loewenstein laughed it off, occasionally pointing to their boom box buddy with incredulity. But they were also accommodating, playing for two hours and getting to most of their catalog’s highlights. The format did fail them at points. Barlow’s spare guitar lines couldn’t effectively replicate some of Harmacy and Bakesale‘s more involved dynamics; numbers were at times muddled and bass-heavy, like listening to Sebadoh through a Pabst-soaked pillow. But the melodies largely remained, especially for highlights like Loewenstein’s “S. Soup” (“Crazy people are right on!”) or “Homemade,” Barlow’s plaintive paean to wacking off.
The latter number got the girl next to me moving. More plucky than pretty, she and her pal sipped Amstel Lights and smoothed their blouses nervously even as they bopped in a weird sort of half-skip. It was an endearing thing, this dance, wonderfully and spontaneously at odds with Lou’s vaguely creepy “naked and loose when no one’s home” crooning on stage. My pal Klein and I speculated, deciding the girls were schoolteachers on the town, the dance a relic of their decidedly less snooty dorm room past. Their skippin’ feet were nostalgic for 10, 12 years earlier, just like those guys yelling requests for ancient cassette recordings. And Lou and Jason? The sideways smiles they shared between sips of wine and Heineken said they were, too.
BLOOD ON THE WALLS! BLOOD ON THE WALLS!