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Review: Dinosaur Jr. Returns to DC

For the first time since its post-pandemic reopening, here I am: glad to be back at the 9:30 Club, glad to see Dinosaur Jr.

They played this, their first show at the venue since September 2016, to promote their latest album Sweep It Into Space. The band has had a tumultuous history: they disbanded in 1997 only to reunite ten years later after a hiatus during which each member pursued other projects.

The new album, co-produced by Kurt Vile (The War on Drugs) is the most melodic effort to date but still incorporates their massive levels of pure guitar noise.

The sold-out crowd was ready and waiting when supporting act Ryley Walker and his band hit the stage.

I was familiar with Walker and it was a real treat to see him live. Walker has built a reputation in the psychedelic rock scene. However, most of the set leaned towards a folk/indie sound. Despite the difference in style from Dinosaur Jr., the crowd was engaged with the act the entire time, including with Walker’s light banter between songs.

It was interesting to watch the band members play off each other intuitively, switching lead roles at certain times during the performance. Ryley’s improvisational style made for a really great opening experience. At one point the drummer had bells in his mouth.

Once Dinosaur Jr. hit the stage, the audience was ready for whatever the band was going to throw at them. That they were aiming for us was made especially evident by the wall of Marshall amps that stood higher than any member of the band.

With his shock of black hair and wiry frame, bassist Lou Barlow was the designated spokesperson for the evening. Still, there was a minimal amount of banter during the show. Drummer Murph anchored the band at center stage.

The set kicked things off with the opening song “Bulbs of Passion” from their first album Dinosaur. Starting slow with just J. Mascis’s voice and guitar, it transitioned into a head-banging crescendo as he continued with the song’s signature screeching solo intertwined with shouts of the song’s title. It was the perfect start to get the devoted fan base excited and set the vibe for the rest of the show.

The band lowered the mood with “I Ain’t” and “Garden” from their new release, the latter one of two songs contributed by Barlow. According to the singer, he was trying to finish the lyrics and was looking for a resolution. He invokes the places people go when faced with dramatic confusion: “We go back to basics, back home, back to the garden”.  Barlow had finished the song just before the pandemic, which accounts for a more cerebral mood.

The band returned to their back catalog with two songs from their 1986 release You’re Living All Over Me highlighting Mascis’s drawling vocals and masterful guitar skills that brought the alternative style that made them famous 30 years ago back on stage.

The second half of the set, enlivened the majority of the crowd, which seemed to be mostly older Generation Xers. The song “The Wagon” from the band’s Green Mind album was the stimulus. That track contains a half-dozen hooks anchored to a roaring guitar that powers the song starting from the first note. It roars, but is still an earworm due to the harmonized falsetto line, “You won’t see me” that comes in on the later verses and echoes throughout the rest of the song.

But in my opinion, the best moments of the show were the inclusion of two of the band’s classics “Start Choppin'” and “Feel the Pain”. From this point on the band reprised more and more well-known tracks to keep the audience interested as well as instigating a small mosh pit which broke out on the floor. 

“Choppin”, a signature song from the band, easily enticed a willing crowd to sing along, as Mascis hit the high notes sung over consistent beats.  “Pain” continued to captivate the audience with its mix of tempos as it cut through the energy and found its rhythm with the crowd.   

The audience happily paused to sing along during the song’s repeating verse and then went right back to moshing as Mascis finished the song with a guitar solo.

I feel the pain of everyone
Then I feel nothing
I feel the pain of everyone
Then I feel nothing

The concert concluded with highlights from the band’s back catalog, including “Gargoyle”, when Mascis went into an extended guitar solo to end the show.  The band returned for a three-song encore to end the night with their cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.  Their punked-up version of the song with its frantic pace made for a great ending to their set.

Dinosaur Jr. have been around since 1984 and have survived various incarnations, indie trio celebrity, a period where only Mascis remained of the original members and a strong reunion, during which they continue to create new music. They have retained their edge as they have matured their sound, retaining a Gen-X fanbase and drawing in a new audience with their more polished sound. From start to finish, the crowd saw a solid performance at the 9:30 club.

Jan Aucker lives in DC. She is a freelance writer for East City Art. She is a music enthusiast who frequents live shows keeping abreast of the current music scene.

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