“Who cares if you have to go to work tomorrow,” taunts Eric Gaffney halfway through Sebadoh’s 30-song set. “We haven’t played together in 14 years.”
It’s true, they haven’t. Not like this. Sebadoh sauntered on for several albums after Gaffney’s 1993 departure, but this tour marks the return of the band’s classic line-up. Well, at least that’s what the t-shirts they’re selling say. And I’d have to agree. Sebadoh sucker punched me at an early age. The album in question was Bubble and Scrape; 17 tracks of tortured indie rock that vaulted from the introspective to the inane to the intense, thanks in large part to the disparate songwriting style of the band’s three members (Lou Barlow, Eric Gaffney, and Jason Lowenstein).
Prior to Bubble, they’d released a slew of homemade cassettes (some of which were captured on The Freed Weed compilation) and the sprawling, genre-hopping Sebadoh III. Gaffney’s departure saw the band step away from lo-fi experimentation and slowly segue into straight-up rock. Bakesale blended the band’s varied styles, but by the time Harmacy hit the shelves, followed by its stodgy, self-titled follow up, Sebadoh suckerpunched me in another way. Barlow’s songs were trite, whiny even, while Lowenstein’s brand of rock was rudimentary: Like Gaffney before me, I lost interest, and a thousand four-track owners sobbed.
It’s no surprise that the first thing I see upon entering Philadelphia’s North Star bar is Lou Barlow shilling his own merchandise, smiling, chatting with fans, and emphasizing that the man who made many a homemade album still digs the independent spirit. Seemingly ageless, Barlow—bedecked in a Cinderella t-shirt (the metal band, not the Disney movie)—started Sebadoh with Gaffney in 1987. Lowenstein joined two years later and, for a while at least, they were a trio of instrument-swapping lo-fi troubadours—founding fathers of the amateur aesthetic along with Pavement and Guided by Voices. But now they’re back, and so are the fans, picking their place as soon as the support band finishes and shouting obscure song titles as if they’re on a whacked-out version of Wheel of Fortune.
With a multitude of songs to choose from, tonight’s set is understandably sprawling, ranging from short, straightforward rockers (“Gold Told Me”) to longer, later songs such as “Beauty of the Ride.” Similarly, the song styles traverse a far-reaching range, from Gaffney’s proto-hardcore “Cri Sis” to Barlow’s achingly lilting ballads (“2 years 2 Days” / “Too Pure”) to Lowenstein’s straight-up rock (“Flood”). In the past, what made Sebadoh so successful was the textural cohesion that allowed them to sit a Barlow ballad next to a Gaffney experiment. The current set-up, however, loses this juxtaposition; despite several shouts for acoustic songs, tonight’s show is a decidedly rocking affair.
So, instead of the intricate, heartbreaking acoustic version of “Brand New Love” found on Freed Weed, we’re treated to its more muscular, electric cousin, culled from 1997’s odds and sods collection, Smash Yr Head on the Punk Rock. Befitting this full band set-up, older, more ramshackle songs are given a hi-fi sheen, sounding full and forceful. Sure, some songs suffer in the live setting: “Violet Execution” misses the stark electric lead line that kicks in a third of the way through on record, while “Elixor is Zog”, stripped of its studio trickery, lacks the lumber that made its recorded counterpart so weird, and sounds straight and sane in comparison. But others, like “The Freed Pig” and “Scars, Four Eyes” sound as tight as the day they were first put to cheap, store-bought tape.
Compared to Barlow’s affable nature and Lowenstein’s stoic stance, Gaffney is the wild card; his songs are as disparate as his personality—nonsensical, erratic, obtuse, antagonistic, and challenging. He seems hell-bent on berating the crowd, but does so in a playful, puppy dog kind of way. Prior to an encore, he asks the crowd for song suggestions and, after soliciting ten or so, turns to Lou and states: “There’s your set list.” Babbling throughout, he gets cut off at one point, when Barlow breaks into a riotous run through “Ride the Darker Wave” as Gaffney beings to spout another non sequitur.
But for all his goofball antics and crowd baiting, Gaffney is a remarkable musician. Alternating between guitar and drums, he plays with consummate ease, as if he were born with sticks in one hand and a pick in the other. Though the reason for his initial disappearance is shrouded in mystery, the band seemingly placates him by starting the show with three of his songs. In fact, the majority of tonight’s tunes are given to the band’s founders. It’s 15 songs before Lowenstein steps up to the mic in a scattershot set that, bafflingly, overlooks Bakesale.
As the crowd starts to visibly thin, Sebadoh given into the clock and close the night out with the sarcastic shot of “Gimme Indie Rock”. It may have been 14 years, but some people obviously still care more about waking up for work than listening to the ‘electric white boy blues.’