Chuck Berry died yesterday, and as I walk into Delmar Hall to see Dinosaur Jr. for the first time, I think about Blueberry Hill, the restaurant down the street where Berry played monthly shows for years, and I think about the statue of him across the street that has become a St. Louis landmark. He was and remains a tremendous part of St. Louis’ rock n’ roll identity, part of our DNA, a constant reminder that we deserve the best. I spent my last birthday at Blueberry Hill. I eat there all the time, but I probably won’t go back for a while.
Detroit band Easy Action opens the show, and when singer John Brannon (also of Negative Approach) saunters on stage, the room gets serious. He looks pissed. And throughout their 30 minute set of tight punk rock, he maintains disposition. The bald and mustached lead guitarist nails every no-frills riff with ease, and the bassist, whose flowing grey hair and beard glows and refracts the light of the venue, plays with intensity and focus. They have a solid balance of aggression and relaxation, which creates a great punk atmosphere. They are good, even if all of their songs feel similar in tone, tempo, and drive.
When they leave the stage, the pit noticeably starts to fill out. A guy comes up to me and recognizes me from a show I’d played with my band the other night. He compliments me on my playing, and I say it’s good to see him again and that now we’re all going to see the real thing together. My brother becomes concerned that the guy and his group are going to usurp our spot, to which I reply, “There are no spots. Spots are an illusion.” I think, a few beers deep, about how the only spot one truly has is the space their body takes up, and how even that space is merely borrowed. We really have nothing, when you think about it.
The crew starts going through the final stages of setting up the space. A crew member comes onstage and sets up J Mascis’ zone, which involves his placing and opening four beverages: one bottle of water, one green sports drink, one coconut water, and one unspecified drink that I presume is iced green tea. My brother and I try to guess which drink Mascis will have first. A few songs into the set, he will taste the green sports drink first.
Waiting for them to start playing is a pure moment of meditative excitement for me. Dinosaur Jr. is one of my favorite bands, and Mascis is, of course, nothing short of a living guitar hero. As an amateur guitarist (at best), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about his playing and studying his style and equipment. I am sure this is true of many amateur players, but that’s because he’s so monumental in the alternative/indie music world. Looking at the vintage Fender Jazzmaster and the Mascis Squier Jazzmaster that are on stage in front of his famous Marshall amp wall, I have the distinct feeling school is about to begin.
The band walks on stage nonchalantly, like they’re at the grocery store or in a library. It’s real. They open with “Thumb,” a killer track from Green Mind that includes an absolutely searing guitar solo in its second half. They are all on point as they continue into a set heavy on new material, namely 2016’s excellent Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not. As they eradicate “Goin Down,” I think about how consistent this band is, how crazy it is that all of their songs sound different but come across in the same style, and in a good way. Some bands change their old music when played live to fit their more recent configurations and vibe, but what is happening here is copacetic.
One problem is that from the pit, Mascis’ vocals are barely audible. Of course, if one is in the front half of the pit at a Dinosaur Jr. show, they probably came to be assailed by a punishing wall of sound, not hear the vocals clearly. I wonder whether this is an issue with Delmar Hall, which is a new venue, or with the mixing. I assume that the tower of amps behind Mascis and Lou Barlow have something to do with it. Around this time, another person in the audience calls out for the vocals to be turned up. A visibly perturbed Lou Barlow responds, saying that the vocals can be heard fine further back and that the amps drown out the vocals in the front. He then thanks everyone for coming. Lou Barlow is a veteran and he seems sincere and everyone accepts his argument.
The show maintains energy for the next hour. Mascis is blasting solo after solo on Jazzmasters, a Thinline Telecaster, and a Rickenbacker. Lou Barlow seems to play the same bass for the whole show and Murph definitely plays the same drum set for the entire show. Toward the end, people begin to get rowdy. The show feels like it is growing even more intense and loud, and a mosh pit forms. The band takes a break and then returns for an encore, which opens with a funny, brief Chuck Berry-style jam. Mascis says something quietly about Berry. The encore concludes with a smoldering cover of The Stooges’ “T.V. Eye,” featuring John Brannon on vocals. Seeing Mascis playing The Stooges will haunt my dreams forever.
As I leave, I take inventory of my sore back, aching feet, and decimated eardrums. Before the show, as I left my apartment, I made sure to wear my shoes with supportive insoles and bring my heavy-duty earplugs. I didn’t eat anything too spicy before the show so as not to have indigestion during it. That morning, my brother had asked me what kind of crowd I thought would be at the show, and I replied it would probably be old hipsters and younger people, grouping myself somewhere solidly between the two. But as I think about my back, ears, and feet, and the precautions I had taken to protect them, I realize that I am probably closer to being an old hipster. Whatever. Rock n’ roll will never die.