After rescheduling their three intimate shows into one huge set at the Albert Hall, noise-icons Dinosaur Jr. show Manchester all their might. Liam Moody reports from the scene of the crime:
It begins with four chords- F, A-sharp, G-sharp, C-sharp, repeated. Drums kick in. Distorted power chords. A two-note riff. A call to arms to a disenfranchised generation jaded and cynical to the excesses of the times. Over the course of five minutes and one second, a country tears down their Mötley Crüe and Poison posters and shifts their allegiance from the Sunset Strip to Seattle, as thanks to continuous MTV rotation, alternative rock became the dominant force for guitar-based music. The kids threw down their leather jackets and their leopard print, wiped the makeup from their faces, stopped washing their hair and shuffled around in flannel for the next few years…
That’s the over-simplified romanticised version of events. However, it would never be as easy as that- from the early 1980s there was a movement that slowly shifted to the point when Nirvana became the pinnacle of counter-cultural rock music. Artists such as R.E.M., The Replacements, Husker Dü, Melvins and tonight’s showcase Dinosaur Jr. are equally important in this cultural shift, creating the sound of a generation (X) that holds up to this day- a soundtrack of slacker anthems, built from the ground up with foundations in the hardcore punk scene, the pop stylings of the Beach Boys and the independence and experimentation of the UK post-punk movement. Dinosaur Jr., with their signature mix of classic rock, jangle pop, Neil Young and liberal amounts of sheer white noise, were able to forge a solid set of albums over the years and are still a force to be reckoned with. With the initial plan for the trio to play the somewhat more intimate Gorilla back in December, the show had been rescheduled and moved into the larger, more prestigious Albert Hall.
Support came courtesy of labelmate Stephen McBean of Canadian psychedelic garage rock outfit Black Mountain. Ambling on stage with a solitary acoustic guitar, Stephen built up a dreamlike Americana atmosphere purely through gently picking chords and a powerful yet restrained voice. This doesn’t last, as at the push of a button, McBean’s music comes to life with all manner of electronic pulses and processed drum loops- even his guitar transforms from organic into synthetic. Not stopping between songs, there is almost a sense of whiplash as Stephen bounces between genres, from droning garage rock through to acoustic folk and crashing, distorted noise, all achieved through a number of footswitches and pedals- Club Silencio from Mulholland Drive and the invisible orchestra comes to mind. The nature of Stephen’s style makes his appearance less of a setlist, more like a mixtape. It’s during the more spaced-out elements that his music really shines, propelling through droning bass and krautrock-styled drum patterns, looping out into the infinite.
Dinosaur Jr. waste no time, bursting into life immediately with their signature sound- a paradox of pretty, almost fragile melody with ugly, harsh noise. Singer/guitarist J Mascis’ languid, drawling vocal style continually threatens to pull the band completely off-kilter, but the powerhouse drumming of the mononymous Murph remains a solid core on which Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow are able to add melodic flights of fancy around their pulverising distortion and feedback. Instrument-swapping between Mascis and Barlow, as well as shared vocal duties, highlight the fluidity of the three piece- with a visual contrast of the former, the white-haired elder god of grunge encased by a semicircle of Marshall stacks, a prisoner of noise- is a contrast with the latter’s constant bursts of kinetic energy, bounding around the stage. Regardless of lead vocals, the two retain incredibly tight harmonies that betray their power-pop and jangle-pop influences as well as no-wave and noise, equal parts Sonic Youth and The Byrds, Teenage Fanclub on steroids. On fire.
The Massachusetts trio fire on all cylinders, barely breaking stride or even acknowledging their pummelled-but-loving audience (case in point, Mascis choosing to lazily noodle around with his guitar in between songs, even while Murph is forced to make a quick repair to his snare drum). The crowd finally become fully unglued during “Feel The Pain” the band playing a mixture of their classic 80s/90s songs and their post-2005 reunion efforts: no agenda, just playing the hits. An incendiary sprint through “The Wagon” followed by a muscular, fuzzed out “Start Choppin’’ served as the centrepiece of the band’s set. Similarly, “Knocked Around” encapsulates Dinosaur Jr.’s sound in a singular place, starting blissfully with jazzy drums, gentle if discordant arpeggiated guitar and plaintive vocals, building in intensity through to a guitar solo more likely to be found in hair metal than grunge. The crowd, now a leaping, swirling mass of energy reacting with joy at everything the band put in front of them, a mass singalong of “Freak Scene” and early hit “Forget The Swan” that culminated in a noisy jam that devolved into a tidal wave of feedback, the entire venue swallowed by pure unfiltered noise.
“Hey…so, what you wanna hear us play?” Lou Barlow casually opens up, the first moment when Dinosaur Jr. spoke directly with their audience while they decided on their encore- several dozen voices with several dozen song choices erupted from the floor, as the trio fired through ‘In A Jar’ and ended with beach-party-monster-attack “Just Like Heaven“, a song originally by The Cure but in Dinosaur Jr.’s capable hands transformed into a grungy loud-quiet-loud cult classic, ending abruptly with a scream from Lou Barlow and leaving behind nothing more than residual feedback.
Postscript: When I signed up to review this gig, I was given a semi-ominous warning of “wear earplugs”. I’ve seen Motörhead (Everything Louder Than Everything Else) and Suicide (who managed to blow out the fuses of the venue they played due to overload) and didn’t think that Dinosaur Jr. could be at the same level. I was wrong. When you see the vast majority of the audience putting earplugs in, that’s a sign that maybe you should too. However, the earplugs were removed for “Freak Scene” and stayed out until the end. No regrets.