guitar gear, music, reviews, theater

Melting Air: Dinosaur Jr., live

The Fonda Theater is a spectacular venue. It’s a refurbished 1920s-era venue, all the “art deco” touches you’d expect. Beautiful paintings on the walls, real wood balconies, a checker-board patterned floor, a few couches strewn about, bathrooms that even come equipped with human attendants.

On the way in, I noticed that the Fonda gives a sense of its own permanent place-ness as much as anything in Los Angeles can. It is a cavernous structure, with a bold marquee, on a legendary street, and it may change “ownership groups” but one cannot help but feel that the theater itself is beyond time-and-date, paper, bureaucratic ownership. The Fonda is not vintage chic, it is vintage. It is a survivor.

One the way in, I also noticed that while the Fonda seems to be exactly what it always has been, everything around it is not. Massive condo and “mixed-use” complexes have sprung up around the Old Thing. The Hot New Things all have the same slick look, the same big pane-glass windows overlooking Hollywood Boulevard, the same typography and “branding,” even. Some of these condos and apartments might even have human owners.

Owners come and go. Complexes are built and repurposed. Paper is shuffled. Time passes. Yes, even rock music itself changes. Hendrix didn’t have MacBook Pro’s to compose on. I’m sure he’d have used them, if he had ’em. Openness to evolution is an essential part of appreciating or making any art.

But there’s change, and then there’s Change, and no matter how the technology shifts, rock will always–ALWAYS–boil down to Really Fuckin’ Loud guitar, drums and amps. Somewhere, somehow, it will always go back to the beginning.

Explaining Dinosaur’s “genre” is a lost cause, because there are so many sub-genres and “this-dash-this-meets-this” explainers that one is just left with a word-muck, explaining nothing.

When I think of Dinosaur Jr., I think of artists like The Who, like Jimi Hendrix, like Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Cheer and Sabbath and The Stooges–bands that took blues and country and Motown and jazz-based musical virtuosity and either sped it up, slowed it down, or stripped it back to the rawest element: the expulsion of intense acoustic energy, in varying degrees, for varying lengths of time.

Even folkier, more jangly-countrfied bands like The Byrds were loud. Half the magic of Neil Young and Crazy Horse is the science of pushing an amp as far as it’ll go; they started loud and still are loud. The Grateful Dead, not exactly “hard rock,” designed for themselves a sound-system that could be heard hundreds of yards away from the stage.

Country, jazz, blues, Detroit rock–whatever the case is, one thing binds it all, and that is the tactical application of sound pressure levels. They’re Really Fuckin’ Loud. 

Taking an electrical current input from a guitar and a bass, ramping it up, pushing it outward through speaker cones–these are artistic choices as much as the songwriting itself.

Really Fuckin’ Loud is actually a left-over from the very beginning of rock’n’roll, where blues and country and jazz bands found themselves playing for larger rooms and had only one answer to the question “how can I be heard.” They kept turning everything up.

So, no, Dinosaur Jr. is not a logical conclusion of an ancient tradition. Dinosaur it’s simply a return to the origins. It’s a rejection of digital, processed, prepackaged nonsense, and getting back to how things were done when there were no other “better,” “more efficient,” “more optimized” ways to do them.

This is a primal, immediately explosive way of producing music. If rock’n’roll has any meaning left in it, if rock’n’roll is to have any meaning going forward, it won’t be because of some slick algorithm-driven search results. It’ll be because the genre demands primal immediacy. Period.

I am finally face to face with J Mascis’ live set-up. His Fender Jazzmaster guitars are strapped into a single 80-watt Fender Twin Reverb, two 100-watt Marshall stacks, two “Super Lead” models, and a single 100-watt Hiwatt. That’s just the guitars.

Lou Barlow’s bass set-up is equally massive. It’s another 100-watt Marshall, I think, a JCM 800, and then a vintage probably 1970s Ampeg amplifier, an SVT model. The SVT model was originally trotted out by the Rolling Stones who simply had run out of  gear powerful enough to handle rooms they were playing. The Who had this problem, too.

All of these amps, the Super Leads, the SVT, the Twin Reverb, all of this shit was built specially to generate loudness.

I’ve followed Dinosaur Jr. forever. This group is one of the underpinnings of my own musical education. So many of these songs taught me what a scale is, or how to use distortion pedals, or how to put songs together and what kind of parts I like to listen to, and therefore, what kind of songs would I might even dare to write. Tonight, I finally get to hear ’em in person.

(By the way: hearing protection is not a nice-to-have, it is mandatory.)

The drummer, Murph, hits hard. The drums are mic’d up, so that the whole band can be mixed and blended together, but even without a mic, the drums would be massive. Each snare hits snaps off like small-arms fire. Each kick of the bass drum pulses low-end frequencies through the floor. The cymbals ride sort of above and around the struck-strikes in a kinetic groove.

The bass is the greatest bass sound I’ve personally ever heard. Like so many bassists, Lou Barlow is a converted guitar player, and has a particular Ramones-driven, punk-strumming-like style. The amplified sound is really a blend: it’s this focused, distorted grind of the higher and middle frequencies, and then a room-shaking bulldozer on the bottom-end. Often, bass guitar gets muddy or “woofy”–it lacks detail or definition. But not here, not this way–I am struck by the clarity of the bass lines, the musical complexity hidden within the “whoa look how many amps there are” obvious signs of power.

Okay, so, the guitars.

Three massive guitar amplifiers, with a total of 16, 12-inch speakers, all lit at once, blended together in a mixing console and projected out both on stage and through a PA system–this creates a condition that is not even loud. 18-wheeler trucks are loud. Lawnmowers are loud. This set-up transcends banalities of that sort.

Dinosaur’s guitars actually have three levels of intensity. With no distortion added, the amps are gorgeous–they present a full-bodied, round, harmonically rich guitar signal, that’s loud but comfortable to unprotected ears.

The first level of distortion comes from a Big Muff Pi pedal, a legendary gizmo on its own terms, and when the Big Muff is engaged, at stage volumes, it is like being inside a turbocharged jet engine. It is just a wash of grinding, really musically complex tones. It is physical. It is felt in the chest. It resonates between and inside the eyes. It rattles components of one’s own ears. It readjusts skin cells. The Big Muff Pi, through this kind of amplification, is a living creature.

There’s a second level of distortion. J Mascis, the guitarist, chief vocalist and chief songwriter, is a well-documented “guitar god” and his largely improvised solos are legendary. He needs one more step–a boost–for the solo part.

I’ve never sat next to a space shuttle taking off. I’ve never personally fired a tank’s main gun. I have fired a .22 caliber pistol. J’s “lead,” Big Muff setting is the most penetrative and overwhelming thing I’ve personally ever experienced.

The Big Muff distortion machine has a fanatical following (yes, I am among them.) It has, ultimately, one setting: thermonuclear amounts of distortion. It is not a terribly subtle thing.

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour uses them. (Pink Floyd being yet another notoriously loud rock band.) Gilmour has used phrases like “column of air” and “cutting like a razor blade.” This is highly accurate depiction of the Big Muff character, at this sound level. One can practically see the strings curving and slicing through the venue’s physical space.

If the bass and drums utterly ripple the floor, the guitar just bludgeons and punches holes through whatever is on top.

The songs themselves are a fusion of folky chords and haunted, melodic vocals, with a raging punk urgency. What sells the whole package? It’s not how pretty the performance is, it’s not the glamor or the light-show, it’s the intensity. It’s the scale of Really Fuckin’ Loud, that puts everything in its right place. As an audience, we are wrapped inside a womb of tone, and the outside world simply Ceases To Be, and we are in a sort of communion with the band. I think about “color field” painting and how one is almost absorbed into a canvas. I feel I have entered a “sound field” in a similar way.

Jimi Hendrix spoke of an Electric Church. I used to think that was hippy bullshit. But here? Now? I see it. I get it. I am part of it. I belong here, with these strangers.

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