With Another Girl, Another Planet racketing from speakers lingering overhead and Spinal Tap stacks spanning the stage, this evening is a most unmistakable indulging of our insatiable thirst for nostalgia. That stoner-rock stalwarts Dinosaur Jr. headline and do so beneath the clusterfuck intersection of Camden High Street, Parkway, Kentish Town Road and so on only shovels further impetus upon this overwhelming feel of retroaction and, heavy on slackened action, it makes for a fit snugger than most week-old t-shirts. It’s unabashedly throwback, though then again so too are Dinosaur Jr.: despite their latest, and tenth full-length I Bet On Sky arguably representing their best effort in a couple decades, they’re a slumberous beast which belongs quite unapologetically to a past we’re continually distancing ourselves from as the years continue to tick on over. And yet led by the mage-like J Mascis – whose resolute proficiency tonight momentarily scratches at a mesmeric wizardry – their set comprised of singularly retrospective, sludgy blowouts seems as nice, spicy, and visceral as it ever goddang did, dagnabbit.
Which is indubitably more than can be said for grimly dissonant Wichita types Cheatahs who, groggier than a Richfield Avenue hangover, flatter to deceive with nifty riffs fuelled by a negligible sense of substance. They spit ‘n’ slur through a fairly humdrum half hour, before paving the way for “the Dinosaur”. You know, I’d say they’re not worthy of shovelling the snow from the trio’s Massachusetts driveways, but that’s probably just me being equivalently petulant.
Though the wintry reference point is a pertinent one for, as a warmup act, they leave the room feeling particularly cold and above all lifeless, with the audience turning to itself for entertainment. What of this audience? Well, it comprises a motley crew of rehabilitated tokers, debilitated teens chuffing on smokeless cigarettes, and so forth. One of the former yodels: “Hurry up! We’ve got homes to go to!” whilst a latter sort swings from a haywire banister. As a part of this year’s Awards Show series, it’s certainly a distinctly odd one to be in any way NME-affiliated – not least as nobody in attendance looks as though they’ll have even looked at the thing in aeons.
Not that Dinosaur Jr. have themselves been seen thundering around these parts for quite some time – it’s been just shy of three years since their last London date, to be that little bit more precise. In the meantime, Mascis has of course paraded on down Holloway Road with his despondent Several Shades of Why solo LP though I Bet On Sky proved the ideal antidote to its bristly, woebegone acoustica. Thus Lou Barlow’s sardonic quips of longstanding drummer Emmett Jefferson “Murph” Murphy III having hauled their not insubstantial cloth backdrop across the Atlantic on some lurid tugboat or other, employing it as a windsail as and when wouldn’t seem quite so infuriating were they to dip into it that bit more exhaustively than they in fact do.
That the record is largely neglected makes you question whether it was even worth erecting its artwork in the first place, though it should inevitably be stated that bands of Dinosaur Jr.’s enduring pedigree and tyrannosaurus stature often find themselves in something of a difficult predicament in that, despite the extensive discography and the legions of ardent fans awaiting sets comprehensively spanning it, there’s always a newfangled thing to at least attempt to sell to the heathens. And tonight is no space cake oddity to such a rule. This is a club show – one which immediately appears all too full-on for the band’s humble Amherst beginnings, in the same way that it seems a bit much for a Monday – and as such, the hordes are here congregated to go nuts; go apeshit to the band’s more timeworn barnstormers. A rendition of Freak Scene which is equal parts effervescent and fetid; that sprightly vibrancy of Feel The Pain, which is here scrappily intermingled with the sultry blues of its verses; the runaway freewheel of an eruptive take on The Wagon.
Though whereas all the above instances once featured as openers on otherwise patchy recordings, I Bet On Sky appeared to break with this somewhat perturbing tradition in that there was a thorough conviction running throughout its ten songs. And consequently, the band seem itching to play some of ‘em. Having rolled out rather lackadaisically (Mascis burbles, “Alright – let it roll” or at least sounds as though he might have), there’s an apathy plastered across his weathered features. And though Lou Barlow’s erratic stabs of bass slashed at with furious wrists may whip up volatile pits about the place, it’s as though their absence has made the heart grow indifferent and despite Budge being as unkempt as ever, “the Dinosaur” is found lacking. Slacking, even. Thus although the Electric Ballroom is more or less their ideal setting and the avid devotees are all in place, there’s something missing prior to Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know starting up and subsequently hoofing the night into gear. There are smirks onstage, and there’s irrefutable ebullience off of it – the three-piece butcher it in the best possible respect, and it’s as though the floorboards turn to Jell-O underfoot. Featuring the dual vocals of Mascis and Barlow, it gets the best from both and indeed could conceivably go down as the best of the night, as rabid stabs of Jazzmaster snarl about their stripped reinterpretation.
It’s followed up with the typhonic breeze of Watch The Corners – replete with singsong breakdown middle eight which sees the lights come up to illuminate a forest of outstretched forearms – though another issue with this sudden injection of more recent material is that their unwavering acolytes are quite patently less well versed and chorused in its swirling majesty and sprawling extravagance. The chunky riffage of Rude, which hinges off Barlow’s insolent drawl and a guitar solo crunchy as fossilised chocolate, brings about the night’s first crowd surfer riding high on the frisky Richter, as the floor is transmogrified into a flailing, steroidal mass of frenzy.
Though this succinct burst aside, aside is where I Bet On Sky is cast as they instead favour a cover repertoire which would hardly have Yo La Tengo blushing and grabbing at the songbook – a rambunctious, wah-hefty Just Like Heaven and Deep Wound’s Training Ground is all that they muster in this regard, and the latter was initially written by Mascis and Barlow anyhow. “This is first wave hardcore! Or second”, Lou bawls through gritted teeth. “This is the ballad about going to college; our Every Rose Has Its Thorn” It’s not. It’s pure abrasion to satiate only punk’s steadfast purists and glut the sadists. A hellacious raucousness, it is mercifully short though in life, sounds like some fictitious house band homed by The Underworld, as viridescent billows of weedy vapour pour out onto the High Street above like noxious fumes puked up by a fairground haunted house. “School sucks”, Barlow limply sneers with such little conviction in his pettish declaration that not even he seems to fully believe it.
And herein lies another qualm with the night: for although Mascis and Barlow continue to make for a pretty formidable pairing, the sometime Sebadoh man becomes increasingly vexatious as we approach the witching hour. Whether sniggering, “What would you like to hear that we’re not gonna play?” ahead of a curtailed encore or cocksurely strutting like a transatlantic Jarvis, he’s the thorn to Mascis’ rosy humility. Mascis himself is meanwhile firmly lodged in the backseat; cocooned in almighty columns of Marshall which, over the course of the evening, combine in building an impenetrable wall of squalling guitar only brought down by the ultimate – the self-professedly “very English-flavoured” Gargoyle. Lifted from the inconspicuous midst of their début, it’s since been bolstered by crisp drums capable of slaying stadia and Mascis’ foghorn-like vocal which resounds loud and clear out over a choppy backdrop.
It’s J making his impression upon the evening where he’s previously merely blurted out monosyllabic belches of gratitude and even with a distinct lack of I Bet On Sky, Mascis is still the man to lump all the money on. Indeed, in scrimping on gibberish of either the stilted or the slurred variety, he makes for an all the more endearing artist – one whose art will never suffer extinction.