❉ A trio of live sets where the Dinosaur Jr frontman successfully tripped familiar songs to their bare bones.
Some music just stands out. There’s no way you could confuse a track from a Bob Dylan album for anyone else. Nobody sounds like Johnny Rotten in 1977. Only Nina Simone can sing Baltimore.
Dinosaur Jr are the same. Put on a Dinosaur Jr album and you know immediately what you’re getting. J Mascis’ nasal, almost-but-not-quite whine sitting slightly uneasily on top of waves of rolling guitar fuzz is about as distinctive as music got in the late ’80s. The fact that you couldn’t go to a student party at the time without someone at some point putting on Freak Scene (or DJ’s awesome cover of The Cure’s Just Like Heaven) helped, but really – there was nobody quite like Mascis’ band as the decade came to a close.
Odd then, to listen to that same voice – and many of the same songs – transposed from their usual position alongside overdriven electric guitar into an intimate acoustic setting. That it works is testimony to the strength of the songs.
The first disc in this 3CD set is the only one I’d heard before – Mascis’ first solo acoustic set at the legendary CBGBs in late 1993. In one sense, it’s no surprise that he comes across pretty confidently; he’d been leader of Dinosaur Jr for a good few years by this point, after all. But even so, the degree to which he handles the pressure which comes with stripping familiar songs back to their basics is impressive, with the only real sign of nervousness being the speed at which he rattles through the twelve-song set (a fact he remarks on himself at one point). A cover of Skynyrd’s Every Mother’s Son and a great version of Green Mind era classic Thumb are the highlights, but it’s a solid set, in front of an obviously very friendly crowd.
With eight songs shared across the two albums, comparisons between the CGGBs’ set and Martin and Me from 1995 are inevitable. The set starts with another fantastic version of Thumb and a So What Else is New which kicks off with a bit of a whoop from the singer. His between song chat is as minimal as some of the songs, but there’s a definite sense he’s more at ease with the acoustic material now, with his vocal stronger and the guitar work more confident. There’s some neat vocal work in Goin’ Home, and if the cover of The Smiths’ The Boy with the Thorn in his Side is less successful than some of his other covers, well, it’s a brave stab , and nowadays I think we’d all rather listen to him than Morrissey.
The third disc in this 3CD set is the one of most interest to long-term fans of J and Dinosaur Jr, though, as it’s the only previously unreleased one (worth noting that Martin and Me has a version of Grab It tacked on the end which didn’t appear on that album’s original showing). Recorded in Stockholm in 1998, J’s guitar playing is a bit heavier this time round – he’s never shy of giving it some oomph, but there’s a real sense of him letting rip on some of the songs here which, cranked up loud, is great to hear.
Unsurprisingly, the Stockholm tracklist covers some of the same ground as the other two shows, with Thumb, Get Me, Not You Again and Flying Cloud making their third appearances, but they’re great songs and it’s no hardship to hear them again. Plus, there’s a mattering of new songs too – Sure Not Over You and Little Furry Things are both welcome additions to the acoustic live set. The gig ends with a fantastic triple play of Thumb, Goin’ Home and Alone which would be worth the price of admission by themselves and then, with a final run through live favourite Every Mother’s Son, we’re done.
If you think you know everything there is to know about Dinosaur Jr, or just want to hear some great songs stripped back to their bare bones, you could do a lot worse than pick up this release.
Some music just stands out.
❉ J Mascis: Fed Up And Feeling Strange – Live And In Person 1993-1998 (PCDTRED829) released January 29, 2021 from Cherry Red Records, RRP £17.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ Stuart Douglas is an author, and editor and owner of the publisher Obverse Books. He has written four Sherlock Holmes novels and can be found on twitter at @stuartamdouglas
Header photo: Ebet Roberts.