H Burns
Le live; Nantes, France

[12.07.2006]

It’s fascinating how much changing languages changes a personality. I tutor a French girl on Thursdays who develops a lisp and severe shyness as soon as she starts speaking English. It still surprises me every time how the shift from French to English immediately changes her from sassy to meek and a bit clumsy. “I have... boughten?” “You have bought.”

On this particular Thursday, I took the 12 euro I made during our hour of preterits and simple pasts and invested it in a pint of Beamish Red and a ticket to H Burns’ show. I found him all alone at the bar about a half hour before his set was scheduled to start. He was writing his setlist on a napkin. We chatted briefly, congenially. He’s opened in France for Okkervil River, Smog, and Magnolia Electric Co. He’s waiting on word back from SXSW about a possible slot in Austin this spring. His real name is Renaud.

When H Burns sings in English, he loses all the soft amiability that whispers through his lovely, aspirated French. He sounds like a miner’s son. Who’s had his nose broken. By more than one family member. He knows how to use his throat and sinuses to torque pathos from ordinary notes, but there’s a humility in his intonation that keeps his stories, no matter how emotionally bare, from seeming pressed upon the listener. He convinces without pushing. He gives the listener the space -- to get inside the narrative, inhabit his scenarios, and empathize with the characters he sketches -- all while giving his guitar a smart, harmonic beating.

Typically, the 15th-Century castle that marks the center of Nantes is visible from the back windows of this little bar. I couldn’t see it on this Thursday because the tiny plywood stage was set up in front of the back entrance to the bar, which was covered (incompletely) with black sheets. It creaked beneath his sneakers when he leaned into the microphone. Sitting in the second row of folding chairs, I could see single eyeballs peeking through the window behind him. He didn’t know they were there. His guitar was the same shade of red as the walls. This unassuming staging helped bring about the delicious feeling that these songs were being sung, these stories told, for me. It seemed almost as if H Burns was telling me my own history, but cleverly and passionately enough that I could still be captivated by it.*

He played for an hour straight, taking a quick break halfway through. We heard his entire solid debut album (Songs from the Electric Sky -- being re-released this spring on Boxson records) alongside some covers of Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co. and Dylan. He stepped back onstage for one encore and bashfully refused a second. He had run out of songs.

We shook hands. “À bientôt.” I hope so.

* I wonder if this is really the kernel of folk music: simple instruments played skillfully alongside simple stories that seem to belong to everyone. But that belonging to everyone: doesn’t that make it pop? And with the wide availability of music software, aren’t computers just as much of a folk instrument now as an acoustic guitar was 50, 70, 100 years ago? Which witch is which? (I love how an hour of songs played in a hole in the wall can confuse all the categories.)

Dinosaur Jr. / Thalia Zadek
Rebel; New York City, NY

[12-02-06]

The surly doorman stamps my hand at the Rebel, a brand new club in Midtown Manhattan. I look down and realize the stamp features a unicorn penetrating a porpoise, which I later learn is the club’s logo. Oookay. Obscene hand decorations aside, I am pumped. Born way too late to catch the essence of true post-punk, I am getting a second chance tonight, because the newly reunited Dinosaur Jr. is playing a sold-out show.

I catch Thalia Zadek’s opening set, which I can best describe as “morning after music.” I’m talking the mornings when you fall out of bed, claw for some ibuprofen and water, and have a 10-minute debate with yourself about whether or not a shower is worth sacrificing 15 minutes of sleep. This is soft on the ears, yet powerful; androgynous, plaintive moaning with guitar reminiscent of The Walkmen and a smattering of violin and soft drums brings me to the following conclusion: yes, indeed, you can be low-key without being a snore. As my college radio station would say, RIYL (recommended if you like) Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

In between sets, I realize I am quite possibly the youngest person here. A few audience members have clearly come straight to the show from work. One of the few exceptions lies in the teenage boy who approaches me and asks me to buy a beer for him. The cruelty of being surrounded by cold beverages at an all-ages show is fresh in my mind, and I briefly ask myself what Lou Barlow would do, but I decline the kid’s request. This place is freaking me out already. It’s awkward and L-shaped, and there are cages on the walls with staircases leading up to them, plainly marked “Do Not Enter the Cages.” The between-set music ranges from amazing to nonsensical, from Tears for Fears to Beat Happening to uh, Fountains Of Wayne.

The club is crisp and tense with expectancy, and the applause is akin to shattering glass when Dinosaur Jr. take the stage around 10pm. J Mascis grunts, “Awrightthanksforcomin’ ” and we’re off. He’s still got that hair, all right, but it’s silvery. Forget it. I’m dancing, and I can almost see memories of 1989 forming above the audience’s heads. The band draws out the final words of “Freakscene” like they almost can’t believe it, lingering on “… when I need a friend it’s... still... you... ”

Murph, sans hair and looking a little bit like a misplaced accountant, is whaling on the drums, but the hollow, crashing beats are exactly as I remember them -- on record, of course. I wonder how they sound to the audience members who recall the real thing. Dinosaur Jr. obsessively tune between every single song, and while they’re not big talkers, Lou smirks during one break and comments, “Me and Murph are really sweatin’ up here... but J never seems to sweat.” J’s looking pretty smiley, in fact, with sort of a sideways grin that doesn’t leave his face for long throughout the set. His solo during “Raisans” lasts nearly five minutes.

Ripping through most of You’re Living All Over Me and Dinosaur, plus a couple solo tracks from Lou and J, it seems they’ve done good by the audience, who are screaming every single lyric along with the Dinos. The vocals are mixed a little low in the PA, but no one seems to mind. I’m still in a mild state of disbelief that I’m in a club seeing THE Dinosaur Jr., but the encore finally makes it real. Their now-famous “Just Like Heaven” cover ends with a punched “YOU!” and somewhere, Robert Smith is suddenly ashamed of himself. The show closes with “Chunk,” but I’m in a fog after they play “In A Jar,” due to the mild existential crisis that is my 21-year-old self getting to see my favorite Dinosaur Jr. song played live.

We’re eating pizza next door after the show, our ears ringing. A couple of fellow audience members around our age wander in, looking dazed.

Yeah, we’re some lucky kids.