By Maura McAndrew | 27 October 2011
With the ’90s revival in full swing, it’s no surprise that bands from those halcyon days of indie and grunge are back out on tour. Nor is it a surprise, really, that many of them seem to be doing so mostly—if the actual shows are any indication—to pick up some extra cash and residual glory. Enter Sebadoh, a band whose influence can be heard all over indie rock these days. Though this “reunion” tour is ostensibly promoting the recent reissue of their 1994 classic Bakesale, it’s clear that Lou Barlow’s reunion with Dinosaur Jr. has showed him that there’s a big audience out there for ’80s-’90s indie rock—perhaps bigger than ever. But despite all the jokes the band members made about cashing in, it was hard to believe after experiencing the tour’s first night in Pittsburgh that they are doing this for money or glory. Clearly, they were there for the sheer joy of playing music together. And maybe to sell some t-shirts.
Sebadoh actually sold themselves short in Pittsburgh by playing the Brillobox, a small club usually played by bands who just scored their first Pitchfork review. The sweltering room was packed to the gills with mostly flannel-clad thirtysomethings, and many disappointed fans were turned away at the door. It seems that no one needed to be reminded who Sebadoh was—it’s instead as though they’d been waiting patiently for the band’s return. Though the crowd was heavily dominated by the younger end of Generation X (aka those responsible adults who buy tickets ahead of time), opening band Mazes represented the ranks of ’90s-obessed millenials. With Cobain-style hair hanging in their eyes and a tight, lo-fi sound, the Manchester-based group fit right into the evening—think a better, more rock ’n roll version of Yuck. Though they could be scorned as next-generation imitators (and probably saw Sebadoh on MTV as grade schoolers), Mazes wore it well and won over the crowd.
Sebadoh was punctual, taking the stage briskly and cheerfully. This incarnation of the band lacks Eric Gaffney, co-songwriter/drummer from the band’s early years, but mainstays Lou Barlow and Jason Lowenstein seemed more than ready to be onstage together again, with mostly silent temporary drummer Bob D’Amico along for the ride. The band looked pretty good, all maintaining their boyish long hair and grungy hipster fashion. From afar, one might be able to ignore the gray stubble and slight puffiness that have snuck up on them over the years. Barlow opened by joking, “It’s the first night of the tour…traditionally, the worst night.” But the positive energy onstage said otherwise.
The set focused mostly on the mid-‘90s records, understandably, with Bakesale and Harmacy (1996_ particularly well-represented. “Too Pure” kicked things off to an energized start, followed by a stirring version of Harmacy‘s “On Fire.” Typical of the Brillobox, the mix was a bit off, with the vocals somewhat buried. But from what we could hear, Barlow’s voice remains affecting and unchanged. He and Lowenstein were rocking out but not growing crazy—there didn’t seem to be any instrument-throwing in the near future. The hits kept coming, as the band moved on quickly to “Skull” to big cheers, establishing this as a rapid-fire set determined to give the fans what they want, with a complete lack of the usual reluctance. As Barlow and Lowenstein switched places for “Rebound,” Barlow announced with a grin, “Now Jason gets to rock out on the guitar.”
That jocular tone ran throughout the evening. Barlow and Lowenstein seemed undeniably happy to be together and on tour, generally behaving like down to earth, awesome people. One self-effacing joke throughout the night involved promoting the band’s t shirts, with Barlow and Lowenstein dubbing their current outing the “T-Shirt Tour,” and dropping hints that one could be ours for just $20. Barlow also seemed intent on mocking the image of a self-serious, indulgent rock star, explaining to the crowd, “Sometimes my band says, ‘Why the fuck are you playing a guitar solo?’ Then my ego shuts down.” Their band system of ego-checks and balances must be working: Barlow and Lowenstein acted, for the evening, like what they are, which is a couple of unusually cool middle age-ish dads who like playing music.
And they’ve still got it, musically: intensity, playfulness, a capacity for both guitar histrionics and stripped-down balladry. “Magnet’s Coil” was an early highlight of the set (and of the band’s catalog), upbeat but inflected with that trademark melancholy, and “License to Confuse” served as another reminder why Bakesale was worth reissuing. There was a good balance between Lowenstein and Barlow—the former’s songs tend to rock harder and louder, but the tension between the two styles worked great in a live setting. Fighting the stifling air of the club and post-dinner queasiness (audience shout: “Where’d you eat?” Barlow: “Here. Let’s not talk about it”), the band soldiered on through favorites including “Beauty of the Ride” and “Dreams,” with Barlow even noting at one point, “Pace yourself…this is not nearly over.” Once they launched cheerily into crowd-pleaser “The Freed Pig,” the crowd’s previously waning energy was buoyed. We may end up passing out on the Brillobox’s soiled floor, but not without a great riff or two.
Since there was no backstage to retreat to, the band dutifully pretended to break before the final encore, signaling to the crowd’s dismay that the show was nearly over. After an impressive two-plus hours sweating it out onstage, the band, undaunted, looked like they could go for two more. Lowenstein took the mic for what is arguably his best song, “Not Too Amused,” exciting members of the crowd into air guitar and hair-whipping—I guess one’s never too old. During those final songs, camaraderie among the band was at an all-time high, as Barlow looked to his right and declared, without self-deprecation: “Jason, take me down.” The band closed with a few more oldies, including “Brand New Love,” from Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock (1992), which sounded as vital as if it had been written yesterday.
At the end of the show, they said their goodbyes, Barlow simply stepping down into the crowd to make his way to the merch table. He had some t shirts to sell, after all, and people gathered around, more than willing to indulge him.