Seeing Dinosaur Jr. live can hardly be described as an exciting experience: after all, what's so interesting about seeing a guy who moves and looks like Snuffleupagus sling a guitar around? Yet for Generation Alternative Nation, hearing is believing, as it convulses in feverish fits of violent moshing and crowd surfing, the instant one-man band J Mascis chops at his magic guitar. He's the unlikely pied piper, the laconic outsider who inexplicably whips a crowd into a state of frenzy, one whiny anthem after another. It's difficult to figure out whether they're getting Mascis' point or completely missing it.
If anything, Mascis seems to be more willing to meet the mainstream halfway, moving out of his freak scene and toward a larger audience with each album. In fact, he might be trying too hard to impress with his live shtick, pulling out every guitar trick in his extensive repertoire and cranking up the distortion and the volume. Unfortunately, what results is too loud and so overwrought that one can't tell the difference from one guitar interlude to the next. The sheer volume renders all the tunes shapeless, the classic songs of Mascis' SST glory days sounding too much like the very mediocre offerings from his newest album, Without a Sound. In a sense, a Dinosaur Jr. show seems little more than a long, grating guitar solo.
Yet when Mascis' gravelly growl pierces through the boringly impeccable guitar histrionics, he rises above the muck. During those verse-chorus-verse moments when Mascis isn't hiding behind the massive wall of sound, his deadpan screech conveys sincerity and vulnerability that belie the showy gimmicks. Expressed through his craggy screech, even a cloying line like "I feel the pain of everyone" comes off as if he really means it, as if he's really felt it. Listening to Mascis strain for that falsetto he can't quite reach changes the whole context of the event: there's grace and power in those flaws that he can't whitewash over with a powerful guitar riff. If there's anything to get from Dinosaur Jr., that's it.
Dinosaur Jr. performs November 25 at Deep Ellum Live.
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