Dinosaur Jr. At The Black Cat

With the nostalgia of their reunion a couple years old (though still trickling down) and a new album under their belt, the highly influential original lineup of Dinosaur Jr. played its first D.C. set focused on the present more than the past. But when they tore into "Almost Ready," the first song on "Beyond," one of the best rock albums of 2007, I had a moment of pause. The drums and vocals were too quiet, and overall the sound was flat and the trio seemed uninspired. With a crew of friends to whom I'd spent months preaching about the band's still-remarkable music and impressive live performances, I was immediately disappointed and preparing myself for that post-show conversation, for my apology ("It was alright but it was better last time."), for their polite "pretty goods" offered generously to assuage my obvious disappointment. Those thoughts quickly faded, though. Turns out I had little cause for pause.

By the end of "Almost Ready," guitar god J Mascis' vocals problem had been cleared up, and for the next song, the "You're Living All Over Me" classic "Repulsion," the drums were louder, too, though they were never quite loud enough -- one of the set's only drawbacks. Murph's too good behind the kit to have him so far down in the mix, particularly with such a loud band. As one would expect, and hope, "Repulsion" was played heavier than the 20-year-old recording. That album may be the band's best, but it was also too lo-fi to do Dino justice. In concert, it is as it should be. And then it was back to more new material, with bassist Lou Barlow's first vocal turn on "Back to Your Heart" and a searing rendition of "Been There All the Time." Mainly, this set was about the new record (and it's a pleasure to write that, by the way). About half the songs came from "Beyond," with some classics from this lineup's original go around thrown in. And for the first time, J has taught Blue Lou some songs from the days after he was replaced on bass (to go on to Sebadoh and Folk Implosion fame) and J had his flirtation with MTV during the alternative rock explosion. They sandwiched new song "This Is All I Came to Do" with "Out There," one of the band's best post-Barlow songs, and "Feel the Pain," J's one legitimate hit. The latter retained the catchiness in the verses that made it playable on mainstream radio in '94, but turned up the volume on the chorus, making it sound more like the band of older.

In addition to the fact that most great bands lose something later in life because they can never quite recapture the impact they had when they first got you to prick up your ears, what makes the underground '80s Dino Jr. lineup better than the major label and buzz clip approved '90s versions of the band better is Barlow's playing. In a trio, an incredibly talented guitarist like Mascis -- and he is one of the best ever -- needs a bassist like Barlow to fill out the sound. Barlow is pure rock and roll, and he held down the fort whenever Mascis felt the need to noodle off on a sick solo. Too much of that can bog down the set (witness this lineup's first D.C. reunion appearance at 9:30 Club), but not enough of it leaves the show lacking (their second reunion appearance at 9:30 Club). This was just right. Notably, on "Forget the Swan," Barlow's other lead vocal turn, Mascis was practically soloing through the whole tune, though subtly and in the background, until they stretched it an extra five minutes and allowed him to show off. It is Mascis' show, after all. His is the ungodly talent, but without skilled players like Barlow and Murph to maintain the songs while J basically masturbates with his axe, it just wouldn't work.

After closing out the set with a couple more songs from "Living All Over Me" -- "Kracked" and "Sludgefeast" -- the band opened the encore by finally played a song from 1988's "Bug," what for almost 19 years was the band's last album with Lou. Despite the prior record's brilliance, the song "Freak Scene" really launched Dino Jr.'s ascent, and it's their masterpiece, all hooks and sincerity and tight, little, amazing guitar solos. A beautiful rendition of the mid-tempo classic "Tarpit." It's one of the few Dino Jr. songs that lacks a guitar solo, but it's also one of the band's most musically dynamic songs, with Mascis in full, perfect whine. And then the band threw us another little curve. Their 1989 cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" dropped like an indie bomb back then, and they aren't ashamed to revive it live these days, but while everyone was waiting for it, they instead went with one of the B-sides from that single -- a cover of Boston straight-edge folk hero Choke's short-lived band Last Rights' "Chunks," a loud, fast burst of hardcore energy, saying we'll blow you away this time, rather than pulling you in for a sing along.

The sound may have been better when this original edition of Dinosaur Jr. first came back together like Voltron and played 9:30 Club a couple of years ago. It was better again when they returned to the same club their last time in town. But seeing them in a smaller venue, a packed Black Cat, just had so much more impact. Petty disappointments aside, the only thing the show really lacked was another 60 minutes -- time to play more classic cuts (seriously, guys, more "Bug" next time) and more gems from "Beyond."

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