Despite a rather strange setting, alt-rock icon Bob Mould delivered a great, career-spanning set, with some wonderful between-song banter.Touring solo to support his new live DVD, Circle of Friends, Mould played in front of a seated, two-drink minimum crowd, many enjoying a meal, at Manhattan’s Highline Ballroom (QRO venue review) on Friday, November 2nd. And this was all before the screening of the DVD, plus there were hippies lining up outside for the venue’s late show, a Phil Lesh (of The Grateful Dead) after party. But while the somewhat schizophrenic new Highline Ballroom made the event rather unusual, Bob Mould made the event rather awesome.
Coming up on thirty years in the music business, Mould has gone from the speed-core beginnings of his legendary eighties punk band, Minneapolis’ Hüsker Dü, through the band’s mid-eighties explosion of mature material (like the seminal 1984 double-album, Zen Arcade), trailblazing the alternative-to-big label path by signing with Warner Bros., drug and alcohol abuse, a non-amicable split-up, acoustic solo work, follow-up band success with Sugar (such as 1992’s incredible Copper Blue), experimental wanderings into electronic music (as his anagram, Loudbomb), DJ-ing (in collaboration with Richard Morel as Blowoff), theme song creation (for The Daily Show and TLC’s In a Fix), and even writing for professional wrestling’s WCW, all the while constantly re-inventing himself. But in many ways, with 2005’s Body of Song, Mould’s come to grips with his past and embraced it, touring with a full band for the first time since Sugar, and playing Hüsker Dü songs for the first time since, well, Hüsker Dü. While Mould was band-less, he didn’t shirk from playing material old – as well as the new, very new.
The ‘Bob + guitar’ nature of the event meant that Mould relied heavily on his more stripped-down work, drawing especially from his first solo record, 1989’s acoustic Workbook. He opened, in fact, with the first track where he sings on Workbook (as it followed the wonderful instrumental, “Sunspots”), the always-as-powerful-as-the-first-time-you-heard-it “Wishing Well”. Workbook was the most-played record, but still with only three songs, as Mould stretched all over the place. He was rat-tat-tat at the beginning (literally saying, “I’m just gonna keep playing”), shooting through “Well”, the evocative “Hear Me Calling” (from Workbook’s harder, louder follow-up, Black Sheets of Rain), Copper Blue’s oh-so-memorable “Hoover Dam” (though it did lack the backwards parts that once led a record executive to say, “Something tells me this song’s about Satan”), Workbook’s ‘hit single’ “See a Little Light”, and finally, in one of the biggest, best surprises of the night, “No Reservations”. The Hüsker Dü track off their final, epic, Warehouse: Songs and Stories was not something Mould plays much, even these days, and while it didn’t have the echoing reverb of 1988, that meant that its pure, heartfelt power was really able to shine. After stating, “So… I should better just shut up and play. I was gonna babble on about all kinds of shit, politics, sex, God… But I’ll get to the important stuff”, Mould launched into the Hüsker song he’s probably played more than any other in his post-Dü years, “Hardly Getting Over It”. Maybe the most heartfelt song Hüsker Dü has ever done (for their 1986 major label debut, Candy Apple Grey), it’s still a perfect mix of soft, touching vocals and expansive, moving guitar from Mould.
After that six-song all-business opening, reminiscent of his last solo show in Manhattan, the April 16th benefit for Callum Robbins, infant son of DeSoto Records head J. Robbins (QRO live review), Mould got down to talking about the future, not just the new DVD, but the upcoming mew album, District Line. Out this February, Mould said, “If you like Body of Song, you’ll like this one. Similar, but not the same.” He then riffed on the record’s probable availability right now on the internet for illegal download (“I love this business…”), and stated how happy he was that “people are still actually coming out to see shows”, before going into District’s “Again and Again”. The piece, “about a cell phone that goes off at the most inopportune times”, distinctly harkened back to Body of Song or Workbook (for the latter, it was probably due to it being delivered solo), with a little more storytelling over effects or hook, and a great title chorus. He then hit it up with Body’s standout single, “Circles”; afterwards, Mould joked that he “only write[s] one or two good songs a decade. I’ve written one, and I just played it.” But then he launched into a song he thought just might be better, the quite new “I’m Sorry, Baby, But You Can’t Stand In My Light Anymore”. Only written recently (District was supposed to come out last September, but Mould has kept on writing – the next record should drop in only 2009) – and in five minutes (“That’s how the good ones are: it takes about five minutes, and then you’re done”) – “Baby” is more of a straightforward break-up song. It could have used a little more complexity, but that’s probably just from the nature of its recent penning, solo delivery, and, as he said, “You’ll have to forgive me if I goof it up – but you won’t know the difference.”
After all the chatter and new material, Mould returned to a no-nonsense quick collection of numbers, going farther and farther back in time. First came Body of Song’s second-best track, “Paralyzed”, which enjoyed a blossoming of force without its reverb, then an extra-powerful without the echo version of Workbook’s “Lonely Afternoons”, followed by a twofer from Hüsker Dü’s epic 1985 LP, New Day Rising. While the latter “Celebrated Summer” (another recent staple from the vault) is still the rollicking-but-emotional, loud-quiet-loud, New Day standout, the former “I Apologize” really took a step up from ‘85, trading in some of its rawness for a more experienced effect. After flat-out skipping any encore break & return for just staying on-stage, Mould threw down audience favorite “If I Can’t Change Your Mind”, Copper Blue’s own ‘hit single’ (more in the U.K. than America), before ending with “Makes No Sense At All”, one of Hüsker Dü’s greatest singles (and not just ‘cause the b-side to it was their cover of Minneapolis’ own Mary Tyler Moore Show theme song, “Love Is All Around”). Another rather unexpected Dü piece, with “Makes No Sense”, Mould was able to end his performance on a jovial, but still rockin’, note.
Following the set, Circle of Friends was screened, first a nice introduction with the story behind the formation of the Bob Mould Band, and then the extensive, epic 2005 set at the D.C. native’s own 9:30 Club. Highline Ballroom’s impressive sound system really gave the feeling of being there, though they had to wrap it up before the final five songs (including “Change Your Mind” and “Makes No Sense”). But that just gave you a reason to buy the DVD – and, more importantly, meet Bob – right after.
Like with Circle of Friends, Bob Mould was powerful, engaging, and impressive – and the crowd watched him sitting down. While anyone with as massive a legacy as Mould would leave the audience wanting more (such as early Hüsker Dü like Zen Arcade, late Sugar like File Under: Easy Listening, Body of Song’s probably-wouldn’t-work-right-without-drums “Always Tomorrow”, or the crowd call for Workbook’s amazing geographic capitol tour, “Brasilia Crossed With Trenton” – “I haven’t played that song in forever…”), there really wasn’t a misstep that night at Highline. The only real problem is that you’ve got to wait until February for the new album, and March for Mould to return with band – which is another reason to buy the DVD…