I’m in the will-call line at the Crystal Ballroom, finding myself childishly psyched for this show as though I was a teenager again. There’s been a lot of anticipation for this one, mostly nostalgic reminiscences of the first time someone heard Bug, and acknowledgment that this would have been a pretty badass bill back in 1988. I was only four then, but hey—I can imagine. You’ve got rootsy NW punk rock legends Pierced Arrows, a reunited Scratch Acid (David Yow’s classic pre-Jesus Lizard band), and, of course, Dinosaur Jr., the alt-gods of fuzz-rock. And if that wasn’t enough of a kicker, even Henry Rollins is showing up tonight to interview the guys in Dinosaur Jr., who are about to play their record Bug in its entirety. I’m curious to see how it holds up after 23 years; shit has a tendency to get tired after so much time. But, like everyone else here, I’m optimistic—we’re talking about Dinosaur Jr., after all—the band hasn’t made a bad record in nearly 30 years.
I wade through the winding bathroom lines attributed to the '80s dance night crowd below the concert hall just in time to catch the last 10 minutes of Pierced Arrows’ set. It’s good to catch one of my favorite bands that I’ve been lucky enough to live in the same town as. Pierced Arrows are Portland legends, and Fred and Toody Cole have been doing this longer than anyone else here. Having played lead roles in a number of legendary cult bands since the mid-'60s, including Dead Moon, the Weeds, the Rats, Lollipop Shoppe, and countless others, they’re musicians who always stayed true to themselves, never sacrificing their independence or sound for the sake of selling records. On stage, they look like spectres, undead rangers in cowboy shirts, with dry voices booming through wisps of delicate, stormcloud hair.
Everything’s sounding unbelievably raw, and as they close out a stunning set, I can’t help but wonder, was Mascis turned on to these guys back when Bug came out? I went outside and snagged Fred for a brief interview after their set to get my answer. He can’t hear me very well, but I get him talking about the '80s and Cole tells me he never knew the guys in Dinosaur back in the day or anything like that—it just came up that Dinosaur’s people got in contact and asked them to tag along for their West Coast tour. Seems pretty cool for NW heroes like Cole to finally get some overdue recognition from their more successful contemporaries and a scene that didn’t pay enough attention to the band 20 years ago.
The energy inside the Crystal is overwhelming for me, so I take a stroll around the block for a smoke, when who do you think crosses the street in front of me? J. Mascis, in the poofiest jacket ever. He’s drinking San Pellegrino, and towing the most obnoxiously bright piece of luggage I’ve ever seen. He looks like a grown-up baby Jesus, and he seems completely unaware of the legions of fans admiring him from the still dissipating will-call line. Mascis slips into the venue past a woman passing out free Monster drinks to clearly intoxicated Burnside bar-hoppers; funnily enough, not a single concertgoer wants anything to do with the juice. It’s an interesting crowd here—young and old faces alike, and it feels like everyone here genuinely showed up for the music. I literally don’t go 10 minutes without hearing someone say, “This is going to fucking rule!”
Scratch Acid takes the stage and David Yow is immediately comfortable with the microphone, doing what he does best. When he calls their performance a “reenactment,” rather than a “reunion,” it’s because he’s doing just that: picking up where he left off, not just getting the band back together to rehearse past victories. The band is tight, and they look like they’re taking a piss, refusing to smile and showing little emotion. Yow is at the opposite end of the spectrum, spitting and spilling beer all over his ratty clothing, pretending to hit people with the mic stand, and gesturing wildly with expected lunacy between taking dives onto the crowd. He looks and acts like the kind of guy the rest of the band would beat the shit out of for walking into their bar. His voice is on, too—snarly as fuck, with all the abandon of a primal cave-dweller. OK, so this isn’t the Scratch Acid of 1988, but it feels good, and it’s relevant timing, as it would seem we’ll have an impending noise-rock renaissance on our hands in 2012. Later, I chatted with guitarist Brett Bradford about getting the band back together. He’s got only positive things to say about it, saying it’s been “lots of laughing” and no drama, just pure fun for all the guys involved.
After their set, I’m trying to enjoy a $4 PBR when I feel the familiar jostle of some too-drunk stumbler crashing into the back of my legs on his way to the floor. Imagine my surprise when I turn around to see two goons beating the piss out of each other. Oddly enough, the first thing my desensitized brain thought of before helping pull them off each other is, “Wow, I’m totally gonna write about this.” Come on, guys, you’re doing it wrong—if you’re gonna get in a fight, don’t do it in the back of the room between bands. It’s just bad taste.
After that display, it’s time to finish my beer and turn my attention to Henry Rollins, who is taking the stage to perhaps the loudest applause of the night. He immediately goes into hype-guy mode, and has the crowd hanging his every articulate word. Rollins reminds us of just how cool a lineup this is. “You have to think you are very lucky,” he says, and he is right. It’s been a great show, and it’s about to get even better. Rollins invites the band onstage and immediately tries to engage them in a conversational style, but gets shut down when trying to uncover how each member of the band handled their transition into doing Dinosaur Jr. full-time. The band isn’t having it, and their aloofness stifles him for a second, but Rollins is a better interviewer than the band are interviewees, breaking through though when he asks whether their parents have approved of their career choices in life. Former students, pizza delivery guys, and health care workers, the band was lucky enough to have parents that were universally supportive of their endeavors, although Patrick’s mom recently read an article on Sonic Youth in the paper and asked him, “Why don’t you join that band?”
Rollins presses on, wanting to know how the band has pushed themselves creatively over the years and whether they continue to progress. Barlowe jokes that he “isn’t any good,” but Mascis interjects to say that developing his sound is like sharpening a pencil that’s “never too sharp.” It’s an apt metaphor—one that, for Mascis, is centered on his guitar tone. He’s constantly incorporated new pedals, techniques, and sounds into his repertoire, over the years and it’s the reason Dino Jr. still sounds fresh after all these years. But how would those new elements incorporate into their performance of Bug after all these years?
But, surprise! Just after the high point of their set, “The Post,” something bad happens. Barlowe takes the mic, soliciting Yow or someone from the audience to come on stage and take over his vocal part for Bug’s screamy album-closer “Don’t.” Both Yow and an enthusiastic twentysomething take the stage together, but Yow is unfortunately forced to bow out with a look of amusement when he is immediately out-volumed by shrill, adolescent screamo-shrieking from the overeager fanboy. The kid was so lost in the moment that he was still screaming even after the band walked off the stage. Congratulations, twit—you just robbed us all of a Dinosaur Lizard collaboration. It could’ve been the high point of the night, but at least it was amusing and the band followed up unapologetically with an encore of classic tuneage to straighten everything out.
So, the night didn’t end in super nostalgic feelings, didn’t take me back to being a teenager or anything like that. Rather, what was most striking was just how much better all the bands sound now, more than 23 years later. When songs translate this well after so much time and changing styles, it makes records like Bug more relevant than ever. But why does a band like this decide, out of nowhere, to rehash the past and and put on a performance of old tropes? Rollins says that Dinosaur Jr. aren’t falling back on past laurels; rather, that when a band that hasn’t made a bad record in nearly 30 years of existence puts on a show like this, it’s just “the icing on the cake.”