[24 May 2007]
Once the Pixies took the plunge and reformed it was only a matter of time until others followed suit. The difference in this case being that, unlike the Pixies, Dinosaur Jr. carried on in different guises long after bassist Lou Barlow had been unceremoniously booted out and went off to find success with his own group, Sebadoh.
The apocryphal story goes that front man J. Mascis and drummer Murph told him they were breaking up the band only to reform it a few days later with a new bassist. Despite releasing some solid records in their new incarnations (Green Mind is arguably as good as anything by the original trio), the prevailing view was that the original line-up was the best. The one responsible for the debut Dinosaur, the undisputed classic You’re Living All Over Me and my own favourite Bug. Fast forward 17 years and Lou, J. and Murph got back together again for a reunion tour and later, unlike the Pixies, a new (well received) album Beyond. Just don’t expect any hugs and kisses as the reconciliation takes place.
On hearing that the DVD was titled Live in Middle East I thought for a moment they had bizarrely chosen Egypt or Bahrain as a stop on their reunion tour but it just happened to be the name of exactly the kind of intimate sweaty underground venue they would have started out in all those years ago. A Boston nightclub. So you don’t get to see Mascis and co. riffing incongruously in front of the Pyramids but you do get a front row seat for a gig that showcases the taut electricity of a great trio once again hitting their peaks.
Onstage Mascis, his long ash-white hair flailing along to the rhythms of his guitar, looks like an extra from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Murph, who strips early on to pound his drums half-naked, is bald as a boiled egg. Barlow, on the other hand, seems to have been kept in a state of cryogenic suspension since he left the group and looks eerily unchanged from band photos of nearly twenty years ago. The film, produced by Mascis’ brother-in-law, has a decidedly stripped-down, borderline ‘home-movie’ feel to it, alternating between fixed ‘fish eye’ cameras positioned above the stage and shaky hand-held work that switches focus between the three band members.
Whilst onstage any interpersonal chemistry is conspicuously absent (Mascis and Barlow occupy their own sides of the stage and do not interact between songs) the material is delivered in a breathless rush which recalls the band’s roots in Hardcore whilst at the same time revealing Mascis’ love of classic rock. The bulk of the 17 songs come from You’re Living All Over Me, which is played almost in its entirety during the show. The rest are a mixture of material from the other two early records plus the post-Barlow tune ‘The Wagon’ and a cover of the Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’. All are swathed in the distorted, feedback-heavy sound they established years ago with Mascis’ high, nasal, Neil Young-ish croak just managing to make itself heard over the top. The biggest cheer, predictably, is reserved for the original slacker anthem and breakthrough single ‘Freak Scene’. Only one other song from Bug gets an airing, perhaps as a result of the deeply acrimonious circumstances that surrounded its recording and led to Barlow’s departure.
The disc also contains a rather diffident interview the reformed trio did for a radio station which none of them seems to particularly enjoy. Both Barlow and Mascis seem unwilling to dwell on the reasons for their split or more importantly the impetus that led them to reform. Much better are the tributes paid by other luminaries of the ‘alternative’ scene of the past twenty years or so: My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields, Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom, as well Kim and Thurston from early supporters Sonic Youth turn in anecdotes and tributes.
Reading recent interviews, with Mascis in particular, I get the sense there are still unresolved issues and tensions within the band, giving the impression that this reunion is only temporary and may be brief. In that respect this a worthy release, a rare chance for fans to see a classic band who last played together 17 years before and may not do so for very much longer. The production values aren’t great but it does a solid job of conveying the noise and sweat of the live experience. When the songs are this good you can forgive the rough edges and just wallow in the nostalgia.