Ever since Frank Black and Kim Deal buried the hatchet in 2004 and indie-gods The Pixies got back together at Coachella, a number of once-sundered alternative acts from the eighties and nineties have reunited. Lou Barlow has the unique distinction of being in two of those reunions: first alt-rock icons Dinosaur Jr., and now his late post-Dinosaur Jr. band, Sebadoh. But in their performance at Webster Hall (QRO venue review) on March 31st in New York, Barlow, Eric Gaffney, and Jason Lowenstein were most unlike other ‘reunion’ acts: in place of the tight, business-like maturity and reserve of adults, who are playing for fans too young to have heard them the first time around, Sebadoh delivered a sprawling, slap-dash, up-and-down performance more accustomed to men half their age, and twice as ambitious.
This wasn’t just ‘any’ Sebadoh reunion tour: this was the original threesome, who was last together 1993. Unsurprisingly, the set leaned less towards the softer, more melodic, and even alt-folk of their later, more commercially successful albums (such as 1994’s Bakesale). Instead, Sebadoh veered more towards the harder, lo-fi, experimental punk of their earlier works, like 1991’s Sebadoh III (which had recently had its fifteen-year, double-disc, re-release). The band did not just scrimp on later songs, however, but instead turned the softer tracks into far more hard-hitting pieces live.
But Sebadoh was inventive on-stage in more than just their song stylings. Originally founded by Barlow and Gaffney back in 1989, the duo split songwriting duties until Gaffney quit four years later (mirroring Barlow’s own, prior split with J. Mascis in Dinosaur Jr.), at which point Lowenstein’s part only grew through their last album, 1999’s The Sebadoh. All of this left each man with his own Sebadoh songs. Instead of just getting touring members to play some of the backing parts, ‘classic’ Sebadoh kept it at the original three: for at least six times during the set, the three men changed instruments on stage, with Gaffney and Lowenstein rotating on drums, Barlow and Lowenstein rotating on bass, and all three rotating on guitar/vocals.
Those weren’t the only, somewhat unprofessional, show-stoppages. Sebadoh’s alt-noise-rock lends itself to guitar tuning changes, but instead of just buying lots of guitars and tuning each differently (as is done by seminal alt-rockers Sonic Youth), the band would just stop and retune whenever it was needed. Then there was the microphone that was shocking Barlow and had to be replaced. When Gaffney moved to that mike-stand, he then brought back the old mike, himself joking, “I don’t think that mike ‘properly displays my vocal abilities’.” Not two seconds after that line, Gaffney was then shocked, to uproarious laughter (and another mike switch).
These events (and more) brought the almost-two hour concert to a screeching halt, over and over again. Sebadoh would deliver a killer performance of one of their many killer songs, then proceed to stop everything, and have to build it all back up again for the next one: a hard-hitting “Violet Execution” into the darker alt-version of “Scars Four Eyes”, “Stars For Eyes” (“Technical difficulties”); a punk rock “It’s So Hard to Fall in Love” into the driving “Sacred Attention” (first mike switch); epic “Brand New Love” into the metal “Cry Sis” (second instrument switch and second & third mike switches); encompassing “Sixteen” into “The most rocking song we’ve ever recorded” (Lowenstein), “Give Up”; wild “Flood” into the dirty “Too Pure”; etc.
Lowenstein, the funniest of the three, put it best: “Our show is killing pauses” and “What’s the most important thing? Momentum.” Perhaps because of their show-killing momentum-pauses, Sebadoh was also incredibly engaging during their downtime, with the kind of vitality and familiarity not expected from members getting back together, after a fourteen-year hiatus. Barlow remarked, “It wouldn’t be a classic Sebadoh show without long tuning breaks. It’s what we’re known for, man. Some people come just to see us tune!” The three men joked about the mike-shocking (the look on Gaffney’s face when he was shocked was priceless – as was Barlow’s laughter at it), and the over-excited female fan up front, “[There] has to be that one girl, screaming herself hoarse – like my wife at the Black Sabbath reunion” (Barlow). When Barlow mentioned Sebadoh’s 1996 album, Harmacy, the crowd cheered, but Gaffney (who hadn’t been part of Harmacy) loudly booed, in mock disapproval. Barlow and Lowenstein debated the merits of living in California (Barlow) and New York (Lowenstein), which ended with Lowenstein’s “[I live in New York and] I’m scared all the time” and Barlow’s “[I live in California and] I’m high all the time!” When Lowenstein claimed “Give Up”, his own song, was the band’s “most rocking” (“People should be like, ‘Fuck yeah, ‘Give Up’!”), he immediately followed the boast with, “[That’s] not saying that much for Sebadoh…”
Spastic, electric, powerful, lost, making you jump up and down, making you check your watch… Sebadoh wasn’t anything like other alt-reunion bands of the past few years, in ways good and bad. The show on Saturday at Webster Hall was something less than the sum of its parts, but also kind of something more: When Gaffney and Barlow switched bass and guitar near the end of the set, Barlow (now on bass) had to ask what the chords were to the song they were about to play. And Gaffney managed to give him the wrong chords (at first). The song? “Visibly Wasted”. After shouting out that number (and its title chorus), Barlow said they had one more song left – before being reminded by the audience of the crowd’s request, and correcting himself: two more. The audience request was “The Freed Pig”, Barlow’s 1991 kiss-off to Dinosaur Jr. & J. Mascis, and the man who’d already reunited with that ‘other’ band (their first post-reunion album, Beyond, drops this May), didn’t blink an eye at playing it. Then Sebadoh got to their ender, the should-be- and will-be-super-anthem, “Gimme Indie Rock!” That’s the kind of show it was.