When Dinosaur Jr. plays, people listen. Maybe they don’t hear the words but, to those for whom feedback speaks volumes, the band’s March 28 show at St. Pete’s State Theatre said more than enough.
The distortion-pioneering alternative rock band stopped by with the hardcore group Easy Action in honor of the headliner’s most recent release, last summer’s Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not.
Between the frenetic chaos of hardcore and Dino Jr.’s swampy sonic discord, I figured the concert might get a little rowdy. I sat this show out on the second floor so I could get an aerial view of the mosh pit I knew would later break out.
Easy Action came on first with Detroit punk John Brannon at the fore. The former lead vocalist of Negative Approach and Laughing Hyenas has a frighteningly disarming voice. It almost doesn’t sound human. It’s more like a possessed pterodactyl roar coming in hot from the Inferno. The singer would pause only to contort his face into demonic facial expressions resembling Bob from “Twin Peaks.”
Like many good hardcore vocalists, it can be difficult to interpret Brannon’s words through his ear-shattering delivery, but one can only presume that his words are backed by a furious Rust Belt working class, still fuming over outsourced jobs to China and poised to revolt.
The band’s performance had enough fierce fury to power an uprising, culminating in what sounded like a cover of the Stooges’ “Little Doll” with wildcat vocals and drums like steady rolling thunder.
But does punk rock make people react anymore? This seems like a valid question after Easy Action’s set in which the frontman wore himself out trying to make the audience members slam into each other, only to receive sincere applause. Some light jostling stirred a few of the more adventurous attendees around 15 minutes in — nothing the purists would call a mosh pit — but quickly subsided. Brannon, out of breath, thanked the crowd, and the other members moved the band’s instruments and equipment offstage.
In between sets, Dinosaur Jr.’s drummer Emmett Murphy, better known simply as Murph, practiced on a sparkly pink drum set as the concertgoers asked each other why there appeared to be another set in the background.
Behind me, three thirtysomething friends were talking about “the coolest kid ever.” He was 17 years old and, after being introduced to Dinosaur Jr. by his dad, he had bought the two of them tickets to tonight’s show for his old man’s birthday. For a few hours, they could rock out together without Mom interrupting them for dinner.
No surprise there. Dinosaur Jr. was always destined to be a dad’s band. Yeah, they started in college, but the group’s blend of guitar savagery and soft-spoken, no-fucks-given masculinity has ensured its longevity among today’s cool dads, even when the lyrics aren’t particularly saying anything. These qualities have hoisted the original lineup, especially the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist J Mascis, atop the pedestal of indie rock godliness among Generation X record collectors.
Before long, Mascis slid off the proverbial pedestal and emerged from stage right. Vocalist/bassist Lou Barlow and Murph followed soon after and assumed their positions. The band’s original lineup proceeded without any theatrics or stage banter, and with very little speaking in general.
With Mascis’ vocals frequently drowned out by a symphonic tidal wave of guitar distortion, one might get the sense that fans were here simply to watch the members play their instruments. That they want to see Barlow racing his fingers up and down the bass neck as he hides behind his blooming Kurt Vile mane, and gaze upon Mascis standing still plucking one of the four or five spruced-up guitars he’ll use during a show.
The band started out with newer tracks like “Goin Down” and “Tiny,” both a bit catchier than the better-known old stuff. Sure, Dinosaur Jr. isn’t much of a visual spectacle, but the distortion, drawn out to fill any auditory negative space, was more than enough for the senses to manage.
The kids finally started to get their ya-ya’s out once “Feel the Pain” began, which must have sounded a whole lot different than the version they remember from playing “Guitar Hero: World Tour.” More mature fans listened intently, enthralled with Mascis’ speed-strumming the chorus, which pushed the mosh pit into fast forward.
This pit looked like a churning riptide, pushing toward the stage, crashing upon the people in the first row, and receding again.
A second drummer eventually appeared behind Murph as the group transitioned into some vintage songs like “Little Fury Things.” The members played until they ended the last song abruptly, and they walked off like nothing had ever happened.
I was about to leave when Dinosaur Jr. returned for an encore. Brannon came up with the band and resurrected the pit for a couple songs, finally getting the thrashing mob he deserved in the first place.
Judging from crowd reaction (the thrashing, the resounding applause, the head nods of respectful adoration), it’s quite possible that the finale spoke to a new generation of future parents who will one day pass on their coolest knowledge to their next of kin in the garage.
See more photos from the show below and listen to a playlist featuring songs from Dinosaur Jr.'s set here.