Monday, September 07, 2009

A little bit of prehistory repeating


Last time I was here, the choice of support act was unfathomable. Tonight, it most definitely is not. Dead Confederate boast a guitarist called Walker Howle and a sound that could only possibly be made by hairy men.

The Athens, Georgia outfit are currently enjoying the patronage not only of tonight's headliners but also fellow early 90s luminaries Meat Puppets, with whom they're about to tour the US, but their dense stew of grungey riffage - largely instrumental, as the vocals seem deliberately obscured - is a tad too mild-mannered and pedestrian to really excite, the moment at which critical mass would be achieved never quite arriving.

While the scientific debate over how the dinosaurs died out rages on, what caused the extinction of the original Dinosaur Jr line-up is well known and well documented: a sharp cooling-off of relations between bassist Lou Barlow and dictatorial songwriting genius J Mascis. So the announcement in 2005, sixteen long years later after Barlow got the boot, that the ice age was over and that the pair and drummer Murph were back from the dead was met with surprise as well as cries of "Jurassic Park!".

Four years on, and they've chosen Oxford to open their European tour in support of second comeback album Farm - a decision they might be forgiven for regretting early on. It seems rather churlish to complain about Dinosaur Jr sounding sludgy - it's like complaining about a bear having a dump in the woods - but the Academy's set-up is doing them no favours whatsoever. The crowd - overwhelmingly male, wider of waist and thinner of hair than in the band's heyday, filling the sweltering venue with a thick fug of stale sweat and farts - shuffles uncomfortably.

A few songs in, though, and things improve, it all starting to come together with 'I Want You To Know' from the new record. The bespectacled Lou - shirt sleeves rolled up and a little hesitant like a nervy supply teacher - begins to relax, while Murph appears as untroubled by the perpetual loss of drumsticks as he is by the loss of his hair. Meanwhile J - who a couple of hours earlier wandered into Cycloanalysts to enquire about fold-up bikes in that voice that never seems to be able to bear dragging itself out of bed - stands to the left of the stage flanked by an imposing trio of Marshall stacks resembling no-necked bouncers, a plump wizard widdling his way through the herculean solo of 'I Don't Wanna Go There' as his long straight grey hair is buffeted by a fan.

No snoozy proggy noodling here, though - not for a band who are perfectly equal parts Black Sabbath, Neil Young and hardcore punk. That the tensions of the past are behind them seems clear from the fact that, to our delight, they not only mix classic early singles 'Freak Scene' and encore-closing Cure cover 'Just Like Heaven' in with recent highlights like the snarling rifferama of 'It's Me' from 2007's Beyond, but also a clutch of fantastic tracks from the non-Lou period including 'The Wagon', 'Out There' and (best of all) 'Feel The Pain'.

Sure they aren't winning many new fans - I'd bet those rushing to the merch stall at the end are mostly buying the iconic cow T-shirt to replace one that's been through the wash so many times it looks leprous, like mine - and sure Farm suggests that evolution is beyond them. But bollocks to that - having come back from extinction is enough.

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