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Dinosaur Jr & Built to Spill – Glasgow, ABC

When the world was two decades younger, young men and women dressed in plaid shirts and Sonic Youth t-shirts ruled the world. Well, at least the cooler pages of the Melody Maker. What came to be known as grunge in the wake of Nirvana’s epoch-shattering success was really less a movement and more a loose coalition of the US’s finest alternative guitar bands. Dinosaur Jr were one of the forefathers, their debut album having hit the shelves in 1985. Tonight’s bill is a bit of a dream event for those of us who loved Uncle Sam’s guitar-wielding troops of the 80s and 90s. For first up are Built to Spill, the eternally underrated sonic cult heroes. Perenially the John the Baptist to Stephen Malkmus’ Jesus, frontman Doug Martsch has ploughed the furrow marked ‘critical acclaim’ while never really getting near to anything resembling commercial success. Which is a shame; Built to Spill are the nearest anyone has ever come to being on a par with CBGB’s-era Television.

It’s not just that they play guitars so thrillingly, it’s how uncluttered the sound is and how every sparkling, snaking line wraps itself around your brain like a tourniquet, squeezing until finally popping in a headfucking explosion of noise and colour. It’s not even Martsch’s direct, dryly humorous and engaging lyrics; it’s the realisation that here is a band at the very top of their game, able to turn shards of melodic noise into something really special. It’s an alternative guitar concerto. ‘Goin’ Against Your Mind’ is a veritable ‘Stairway to Heaven’ for people who hate hippies. Their set lasts an hour, they could have played for ten and it would still have been wonderful. A truly outstanding band.

Which makes it difficult for J Mascis and Lou Barlow, especially as they hit the stage without long-term drummer Murph. He has returned to the US due to illness and apparently been replaced by a Jonas brother. Masci sthese days resembles a sort of Sub Pop Gandalf, straggly grey hair falling to just above his bottom. He is, somewhat alarmingly, absolutely encased in enormous Marshall amps. Like Billy Corgan, there was always the suspicion that Mascis, for all his immaculate slacker credentials, secretly dreamed of being in KISS.

They start off with ‘Thumb’, which is as tender a piece of deranged guitar punk as you’ll find on record, but is somewhat bludgeoned by Mascis’s overly-powerful guitar. It’s as if he’s trying to channel the agression that BtS managed with their three-pronged guitar attack, but in covering every possible part of the song with some noise, some effect, the music doesn’t have time to breathe. It’s just too much. He also uses a phaser pedal. Hearing a truckload of baby cows being slaughtered seems a more pleasant alternative to suffering the prolonged use of this gadget.

Which is a shame, because when he does allow a little light, you are reminded why Dinosaur Jr were so good. Nobody plays guitar like J Mascis. Nobody. His sclerotic genius remains intact all these years on, and when it is married with his unique voice – Neil Young as an unruly teenager – the years fall away and it’s just perfect, as on ‘Get Me’ or ‘Out There’. There’s too much filler however, which is made virtually undistinguishable by the sludgey guitar pounding the hall.

It’s clear the voice isn’t what it once was, only occasionally recalling past glories. ‘Freak Scene’ makes it all worth it though. It’s a stone cold classic, and the audience and band are united in three minutes of some of the best, spikiest playing imaginable. But then the ennui sets in again, and, unforgivably, Barlow chastises the crowd for being unenthusiastic in their calling for an encore. One can’t help feel, however, that as they have just had to sit through an interminable ten-minute wank from Mascis, it’s a testament to them that they are here at all. And demanding encores isn’t really punk, is it?

But, whatever, they finish after one encore, no ‘Start Choppin” or ‘The Wagon’ and ten minutes earlier than advertised. Was Barlow’s joshing actually true? Have they left in a huff feeling the crowd ungrateful?

It’s ua little pathetic if true. The fact is, to borrow a football term, they’ve been played off the pitch tonight. Mascis and co showed sparks of what made them vital; Martsch simply demonstrated why he still is.


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