Dinosaur Jr. at The Picador
Iowa City, December 11, 2007
It was several months ago, back when the temperatures were a little warmer and the afterglow of Dinosaur Jr’s reunion album Beyond still firmly in my mind, that a local club announced the original line-up would be playing in a club small enough to be part of the You’re Living All Over Me tour itinerary back in ’87.
Yes, The Picador (known as Gabe’s Oasis twenty years ago, and it’s just as dingy now as it was back then) is a venue much too small for the likes of Dinosaur Jr., which means it was be the perfect venue for someone like me who’s getting along in years, but still views age as a state of mind. To give you a better idea of The Picador, think of the late CBGB’s as a visual reference point, albeit without the legendary history and with a shittier load-in process that requires bands to navigate a series of outside stairs that aren’t band-friendly, particularly in the winter. To be fair: the club has addressed this treacherous staircase with the name change, but I still wouldn’t want to be the one lifting heavy amps up and down, no matter how wide they’ve now made ’em.
The back stairs lead to an unrepentantly dismal club with absolutely no décor aside from the legions of sticker of bands that previously braved the stage. It is the epitome of a “dive” and many bands have cut their Iowa teeth there when starting out, but few return once they’ve reached a moderate amount of success.
Dinosaur Jr. reached that level of success over twenty years ago, which means that seeing them in a club that can’t hold more than 150 patrons without being shut down by the fire marshal is something of a rare event. I was stoked at the idea that a tour steeped deep in an aura of nostalgia would make its way to a club that practically promotes similar feelings for me.
The trouble was, Iowa was hit with a major ice storm on the same day that J., Lou, and Murph were scheduled to play, and the fear of a potential cancellation was very real.
Thankfully, Mascis had scheduled a day off for his birthday (December 10) and the band actually rambled into Iowa City the afternoon before the ice storm hit. Come ice, sleet, or snow, the show would go on as planned.
I arrived early and met up with a friend who suggested we take a spin beforehand to prepare ourselves for the onslaught of Fender Jazzmaster distortion fed through a wall of Marshall stacks. Walking into the club baked and content, I noticed Mascis, sporting glasses, stocking cap and a weather appropriate winter coat, standing in the foyer conversing with (presumably) a member of the crew. I sheepishly smiled at him as I walked past, but because I was too baked to think of anything clever to say, I continued on without a word and walked up to the club.
My friend and I made our way towards the front, hoping to get a decent place near J.’s side on stage right. Immediately, I noticed three stacks, one Hiwatt, one vintage Marshall (with a road-worn cab) stack and one fairly new Marshall stack and staked out a place in front of them. After a wonderfully inspired set by openers Awesome Color, the crowd started to pick up and snuggled up towards the front of the stage. It wasn’t a sellout crowd, but a fairly decent sized one considering the day of the week (a Tuesday) and the ice storm that by then was subsiding.
I was happy with my place near the stage, so imagine how prepared I was to dispute with anyone trying to jockey for position in front of me. I had been looking forward to this night for months and this would be my first Dino Jr. show (original line up, no less), so when I felt a hand easing me out of the way, I turned to have a few choice words with the instigator. The space invader turned out to be none other than Mascis himself, navigating his way towards the stage. It’s true: that would be the second time that I managed to look like a retard in front of J. Mascis that evening.
A wave of emotion filled me as the band started out with “Bulbs Of Passion,” a gem from their debut album. Before you consider the reunion tour to be a simple greatest hits package, most of the set contained material from the new album. And because Beyond is such a good effort, I had no disappointments in their selection.
Since the band is nearing the end of this reunion tour, there was an obvious cohesion throughout the entire set. All members were tight: J.’s solos were fluid and emotive, Barlow sounded equally precise and Murph appeared to be genuinely excited throughout each song, frequently rattling off fills and beats in between numbers as if he were eager to get going on the next tune.
There was something strangely metaphorical at how Murph and Lou seemed to be teamed together at one side of the stage while Mascis appeared alone, surrounded by his stacks instead of his bandmates. Occasionally he’d look towards Murph after he’d finished tuning, giving the go-ahead to begin the next song.
J. seemed unconcerned with his vocal delivery and looked much more content with his guitar work. During “Been There All The Time,” he appeared to be in a different zone during the solo, only to be startled out of his headspace when it came time to begin singing the third verse.
Barlow, who was provided two songs during the set, has aged into a very handsome man. He served as the official spokesperson during the set and, on one particular exchange, he voiced amazement that people were allowed to smoke in the club. The cigarette smoke was a tad excessive, but what made his attempts at getting people not to light up was the fact that the tour’s original sponsor happened to be none other than Camel cigarettes. It should be noted that there were no tobacco “street teamers” at this show and no evidence of any corporate sponsorship.
Mascis, whose long gray locks swayed forward and back as he continually rocked from his heels to the balls of his feet, kept his eyes closed during most of the performance. Not a note was wasted and no effect pedal was left untouched as he moved from expansive chorus treatments to superfuzz tinnitus at the tap of his tennis shoe.
The only complaint would be how Mascis chose to tune up after every song rather than have a tech swap instruments, and how he does so without muting the instruments. Sure, the thing sounded great, but it certainly diminished any momentum that the material could have created with quicker transitions.
The crowd initially seemed a little too polite in the presence of this guitar god and his old school compadres. Thankfully, all forms of civil obedience began to unravel towards the end of the set when the alcohol started to impact some of those in attendance. At one point, a fairly harmless looking middle-age man turned towards a younger dude who’d gotten particularly rambunctious and it appeared that fisticuffs would ensue. Another thirtysomething got between the disputing generations, and I’m sad to admit that the older fellow slowly worked his way towards the back of the house in defeat after threatening to kick the other dude’s ass.
The best thing was that, as the crowd began to get riled up, the more Dinosaur Jr. did too. The band ended with a stunning version of “Forget The Swan” before going behind the amps to discuss the encore selection.
And what a selection it was: after a great run through of “The Wagon,” Dinosaur Jr. ended with a note-perfect, slightly faster-paced version of “Kracked” and “Sludgefeast,” two standout tracks from their landmark second album. God bless ’em for keeping the feedback segueway just like the original vinyl version (the SST cd version removed it), thereby sealing the lid on a perfectly coordinated jaunt down Memory Lane.
It’s strange, but I’m now feeling (somewhat selfishly) that they retire the moniker after this tour. I can’t think of how they could possibly top a wonderful return to form that is Beyond or capture such a perfect performance that transpired in Iowa City on that icy Tuesday night.
Bulbs of Passion
Been There All The Time
Feel The Pain
This Is All I Came To Do
Pick Me Up
Forget the Swan
MP3s from Beyond:
• Dinosaur Jr – “Been There All The Time”
• Dinosaur Jr – “We’re Not Alone”