Bob Mould, Great American Music Hall, March 23, 2008: How has it that two-and-a-half years have passed since I last saw Bob Mould in concert?! I mean, I know I missed a couple of gigs here and there; I blame rock tourism and freelancer finances, respectively, for those no-shows. But I had no idea I'd let it come to this.
I guess in order to understand why this lag even matters, I should back up and share one of my oft-told tales of teen angst. (Please feel free to skip this part.) When I was in junior high, my parents forced me to go to Vietnamese language school on Saturday mornings while my brothers stayed home, watched cartoons, and played GI Joe--but I digress.
The school, in and of itself, was not so traumatic. The troubling aspect came from the fact that my fluency was so laughable that I was placed in the beginner's classes, where my so-called peers were a good three to five years younger and--thanks to puberty--anywhere from several inches to a foot shorter than me. First lesson learned: It's indeed possible to feel awkward, self-conscious, and stupid all at the same time. (Addendum: When I started taking Vietnamese classes again in college, I realized my language skills were about average for people my age and/or who had immigrated to the United States around the same time. Whew!)
Anyway, somewhat to my parents' chagrin, I ended up hanging out with the Amerasian kids, who also happened to be old friends. I did learn some basics of the Vietnamese language in the couple of years I was required to go, but just as important, the mixed-race kids and I talked (in English) about music during recess. And this is where I was introduced to Hüsker Dü.
In truth, British bands continued to dominate my listening habits for a while longer, but this limited exposure to the American DIY scene revealed a musical universe dedicated to a set of values diametrically opposed to those of the polished pop musicians I favored. I wouldn't fully recognize this legacy until nearly a decade later, when lo-fi brought it all back for me, but I was already smitten. And when Bob released his first solo album, I thought it was one of the most beautiful collections of songs I had ever heard. I was hooked.
Between then and now, a lot has changed, but my admiration has never wavered. During the grunge years, Sugar was nearly the only American band I listened to, it was Bob's Singles Only Label that introduced me to Grant Lee Buffalo (this blog provides ample proof of where that led), and I remember buying a Magnapop CD just because he produced it. I could even relate to his dance stuff, having gone through a similar phase.
I realize that sounds like a lot to invest in one concert by one artist, but I certainly am not alone. The fans at this well-attended show welcomed Bob with hoots, hollers, and lots of love, and Bob reciprocated with a set heavy on older songs. I think only a couple titles each from the new album District Line and its immediate predecessor Body of Song made the cut, while Sugar representation was strong, evident in two opening numbers and several more songs sprinkled through the set. Of course, we heard plenty of solo material as well, and most surprising of all, Hüsker Dü featured prominently too.
Rich Morel and Jason Narducy were once again along for the ride, but replacing Brendan Canty at the drumkit was Jon Wurster, whom I had last spotted touring with the New Pornographers. Standing stage right, I had a great view of Jason Narducy, one of the most energetic bassists you'll ever see, and his backing vocals filled out the songs (especially the Hüsker Dü tunes) nicely. My only real complaint of the show might have to do with the keyboards. Though I was right next to Rich Morel, I could barely hear his contributions apart from the obvious segments, such as the opening of "Hoover Dam."
If I had to state a preference for Bob with a band vs. Bob solo, I think I'd go with the band setting just because Bob's happiness is palpable when he's playing with his fellow musicians and friends. It wasn't unusual during this show to see Bob, in the midst of his musical duties, grinning at his bandmates or conferring with them on changes to the setlist. A number of times, Bob also stepped back into the shadows far on stage left, perhaps to give his backing players a share of the spotlight? Well, that's my take.
The blistering main set fired us up good, the first encore gave us a chance to catch our breath, then the second and final encore kicked our asses all over again with a triple dose of Hüsker Dü. In fact, it appeared that they had planned on only two songs, but in response to the roaring reaction, Bob decided to throw in "New Day Rising," which I've never heard him do. I'd like to think that Bob is continuing to make peace with his past, and that's why he's revisiting his earlier work now. Seeing as he continues to look to the future, I don't know why he shouldn't allow himself that leeway.
Saturna opened the show, and they sounded really good, both poppy and rock--and I don't mean emo! Their guitarist, especially, produced some wonderful tones. One song took me right back to Killing Joke, the Chameleons, Echo and the Bunnymen and that guitar sound I love so much. Another, with its huge wall of heavy but melodic guitar, may not have existed at all were it not for likes of Bob and other musical pioneers. They paid the obligatory homage to Bob, but I get the feeling that they really meant it.
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