I've caught Dinosaur Jr. shows a couple times in the past, and they're always similar -- fast, to the point, and loud enough to make your ears bleed. But when I heard that Black Flag vocalist turned cultural icon Henry Rollins was conducting a pre-show interview with the band, I honestly had no clue what to expect. Typically it would be strange for a musician to tour the country conducting interviews instead of performing, but seeing as Henry has padded his resume as a talk show host, a character in a Def Jam licensed street fighting videogame, and a cameo participant in Jackass stunts, his current touring duties aren't a big surprise. While pipe dreams of aRollins-Dino collaboration fogged my pre-show brain, the interview itself was surprisingly professional. Rollins relinquished the spotlight and kept the attention on J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph.
Throughout the interview, Rollins focused on 1988's Bug, a pivotal album that would help Dinosaur Jr. breakthrough into the mainstream, yet breakup the group's original lineup. The Q&A touched on Mascis' increasing control over the songwriting process, and the band's last tour with bassist Lou Barlow for nearly two decades. On the first night of the Rollins interview tour, the group seemed standoffish with their answers, reluctant to share any information that couldn't be found within a half hour of digging online. But it was captivating to watch the faces behind Dinosaur Jr, Black Flag and Sebadoh talk about their trade and add perspective to the slice of history that was about to be relived.
In recent years, Dinosaur Jr. have created a more melodic version of their shredding oriented rock. But during their set, a performance of Bug in its entirety, they remained faithful to the rough edges that defined their early sound. Though the stage backdrop showcased the album art for 2009's Farm, an album that would receive no attention that night, the stage configuration seemed fitting for Bug, considering the tensions that surrounded the album. Mascis and Barlow claimed opposite ends of the stage, each surrounding themselves with towering walls of amps, while Murph drummed between them. With little fanfare, the group launched into "Freak Scene," an almost radio friendly single that contrasted Mascis' humble vocals with his punishing guitar riffs. "Freak Scene" always sounds great, but the group's feedback peppered rendition sounded like what it was -- the first song of the first show of the tour.
As the night continued and the album unfolded, Dinosaur Jr. really started to get in the zone. The energy steadily built through tracks like "Let It Ride" and "Budge," providing a freshly bearded, silver locked Mascis ample opportunity to let his guitar tell you why he's a legend, seeing as he was too humble to say so himself during the interview. Everything built up to Barlow's only lead vocal opportunity of the night, "Don't," a brutally abrasive jam punctuated by Barlow's repeated screams of "Why don't you like me?" Lou is by far the most outgoing stage presence in Dinosaur Jr, so it was hard for me to watch him sit quietly in the corner for the bulk of the set. But when he finally unleashed an entire show's worth of chaos into four repeated words, it was six of the most primal, honest, vulnerable and moving minutes of live music I've ever witnessed.
After Bug, the group returned for a brief encore of sans-Lou era Dinosaur Jr. "Out There" and "Feel The Pain" were well performed, but failed to match the emotional heights of "Don't," and took away precious set space that could have been better used on essential lineup material. I've never been a fan of bands playing an entire album live, especially bands like Dinosaur Jr. that have such sprawling catalogue to draw from. But even though Dinosaur Jr.'s show was short, at times predictable, and failed to represent the band's career as a whole, the Bug show provided an intimate and in depth look at a defining moment for a band that helped redefine what great music sounds like.