Musical Musings: Dinosaur Jr., Moviola, Califone and more

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Dinosaur Jr. and Awesome Color at The Blind Pig, Ann Arbor

Capped off the weekend with a trip to That School Up North, and I've got to admit, it sucks to know the place is just another sleepy college town and not a legion of the Dark Lord's devotees. This isn't quite "Luke, I am your father" bad, but come on, couldn't you folks manage at least a sneer? How can I despise you now?

Anyway, this was a pilgrimage not about bitter sports rivalries but bitter band breakups resolved for the betterment of rock. My buddy Kyle and I traveled to Ann Arbor's Bling Pig—dark, dingy and sans sightlines—to see reunited indie rock legends Dinosaur Jr. But first we had to stand through Awesome Color. I had hoped I might miss the openers because (a)arriving home close to sunrise sounded awful and (b)the band's album on Ecstatic Peace is less than mediocre. But the show started around 10:30 p.m., so I witnessed all of the Detroit group's seven-song set. Thankfully, Thurston Moore's buds kept it nice and compact, and better still, their boneheaded garage rock jams started to come to life about halfway through, though the battered rhythms and guitar wrangling never really rose above pleasantly passable. Perhaps Awesome Color would have been revolutionary 40 years ago, but it's pretty uninspiring to see this scruffy trio cribbing from their Motor City ancestors without updating the sound even slightly.

On to our headliners: Apparently by getting kicked out of Dinosaur at the end of the 80s, Lou Barlow avoided aging at the shocking pace exhibited by gray-maned J Mascis and dadly Murph. That's kind of surprising considering the ulcerous rage Barlow exhibited on "The Freed Pig." But I digress. When the legendary trio, touring behind their first album together in 18 years, stepped on stage, how old they looked was irrelevant.

After entering to much fanfare, they stood around for a bit, not too concerned with stage presence or addressing the audience (though I'm pretty sure they waved). Then they launched into the new Beyond's opener "Almost Ready" at high speed. What followed was a schooling on how to play guitar rock in the 21st century. They plowed through a bunch of new material, scattering the occasional old-school "hit" for the fans. The hosanna-filled "reunion!" stage of this reunion has passed; this was just another night of accomplished rockers going about their business, with all the pluses (tight, ferocious playing) and minuses (less thrills) that implies. A thunderous "Sludgefeast" closed the main set, and I vowed for the umpteenth time to invest in some earplugs.

Despite the band's high level of performance, the entertainment value suffered mightily from long gaps between songs filled with amateurish noodling from Mascis and Murph. Barlow, the geeky spokesman, made the occasional quip to fill in the gaps, but he wasn't much help. They remedied this beautifully for the encore, ripping through a medley of "Just Like Heaven," "Freak Scene" and a heavier-than-heaven Barlow punk tune whose name escapes me right now. Given Dinosaur's stature and skill, it's hard to fault them for the lackadaisical nature of the main set. They killed it, delays or no delays. But this encore was the kind of show they should have been putting on all night; more than all the songs before it, it validated the gargantuan bags under my eyes the next morning.

Live shows in Nelsonville and on the home front after the jump...

Rosebuds, Land of Talk, Spanish Prisoners at Little Brother's

Apologies to Thursday night's performers, particularly headliners the Rosebuds, for my divided attention, but nobody was tearing me away from LeBron's magnificent Game 5. More on that in a moment. First, I caught the last few songs by local solo act Spanish Prisoners, but I didn't form many conclusions. More on him later, too.

The first full band on stage Thursday was Land of Talk, the Montreal trio whose debut EP Applause Cheer Boo Hiss knocked me out when I finally heard it last month. I was surprised by singer-guitarist Lizzie Powell's laid-back look, with bare feet and hair under a headband, considering the searing intensity in her voice on the record. The show seemed a little more laid back as well, presenting the songs more as catchy alternarock than the sound of electrified anger. Land of Talk with a chill pill wasn't quite as much of a thrill, but there was still no denying those hooks. Pick up the album, y'alls.

Like I said before, I was watching LeBron for more than half of the Rosebuds' set, but the music made for a solid soundtrack to the whirlwind basketball action. Once I finally got over to the stage (elated by the magic on the hardwood), they were as good as ever, and as good-natured about the percentage of folks tied to the basketball game. (They politely asked who won.) The set didn't seem quite as furious as I've seen them deliver before, but the Southern rock/punk/folk/disco dance party was still in effect, at least on stage. The relatively paltry crowd wasn't doing much moving, though they seemed to be into it. Audience and performer really connected for the closing number, in which the band came down to floor level and performed with no microphones—only claps, stomps, acoustic guitar and ringing voices. As my pal Erin noted, it's nice to see a band take a small crowd in stride and make the best of it. Cheers to the Rosebuds.

Califone, The Bitter Tears and Spanish Prisoners at Stuart's Opera House, Nelsonville

I drove down Route 33 on Friday evening to see Califone, the Chicago experimental folk rock group that tore up the Wexner Center last fall, at Nelsonville's classy Stuart's Opera House. Chicago's Bitter Tears opened the show along with, once again, Spanish Prisoners.

I was able to see Spanish Prisoners' full set this time, though that only accounted for five songs in 20 minutes due to a restrictive time slot. I like Leonid Maymind, and I think he has a lot of potential, but several things stood out to me that could have been better. For one, his songs lend themselves to a lot of elaborate instrumentation and the power of a full band; alone, they just don't stand up, especially considering that his voice doesn't really stand out. Also, I don't understand why he had to tune his electric guitar for the first song he used it on. It seems in such a professional setting (small audience be damned, and trust me, the audience was small), and fresh off a sound check, the equipment should be ready to go. That said, let's not be too harsh here. Maymind's got a Bright Eyes thing going that could really take off if he finds the right collaborators to elevate his songs on stage. I'm excited to hear his new album, set for release by the end of the month. It's supposed to be full of just the kinds of flourishes that I've been asking for, and it's arriving at my office today. More on this fine fellow soon.

Bitter Tears are sheer exhibitionists, which I love, but don't let this all-male quintet's wedding dresses, Enlightenment era hairdos, Sherlock Holmes outfit and cat costume distract you from the music. It's folk pop played on mostly orchestral instruments—stand-up bass, an array of horns and whistles, acoustic guitar, piano and drums—and it's as infectious as it is perilously strange. They mostly dealt in story songs that told tales of being murdered in the park last night, a tortured father-son relationship and catching that scoundrel who got the beloved ladyfriend pregnant. If that all sounds a little dark and dour, well, it is, but the ridiculous costumes and the band's twisted sense of fun lighten the mood, if only slightly. Theirs was the most impressive set of music I saw all weekend. I would have bought their album if I had any cash on me.

Califone was not quite as wonderful as they were last November in Columbus. Perhaps the spectacle that preceded them dampened the headliners' effect, or maybe all the empty seats made it feel more like a low-impact rehearsal than a regular show. (Tim Rutili was more personable on this night, cracking jokes about how he feared being made into sausage in a small, rural town far more than being gunned down in the ghetto.) Either way, Rutili and company still showed themselves as some of the most original craftsmen in American music. His voice is rich and piercing, like a less hackneyed Jay Farrar. His band's songs sound as if they were built from the ashes of burnt circuit boards, perhaps ripped from hard drives filled with old country tunes and Stomp compositions. On stage, the music is as thickly layered and brain-poking as on record, and though it came off as a little sleepy on this night, it would make a wonderfully weird soundtrack to dreams.

Moviola CD release show at Used Kids

Saturday presented another rock vs. basketball conflict. Moviola was celebrating its awesome new record, Dead Knowledge, by playing its first real show in two years. But the Cavs were attempting to close out the Pistons and clinch their first trip to the NBA Finals. Attempting to get the best of both worlds, I bolted from the concert during Parker Paul's opening set of piano tunes (full of hilariously clever lyrics, by the way) to watch the second quarter down at Larry's. I came back just as Brian Harnetty was finishing up a unique sort of DJ set that I didn't witness enough of to describe properly.

The main event delivered all I could have asked for. Moviola showed no signs of rust. Instead, they kicked out the jams with casual grace, obviously comfortable in the space they used to write and record Dead Knowledge. The performance crested for me when they recreated the record's segue from ragtag romp "Dont I Know" into "Hand to Mouth" and its powerful guitar haze. Of course, that could be because I bolted right after that part, about halfway through the setlist, to catch the end of Game 6. Boobie!