Sebadoh? In Dunedin? THE Sebadoh? How is this so?
The frequency with which ‘International’ recording artistes visit this town is well, to put it politely, a-fucking-bysmal. I’m not talking about the Elton John / Paul Simon / Aerosmiths of this world that wheeze their creaking frames round the Forsyth Barr stadium, just ordinary small/mid sized bands that a) aren’t from NZ and b) aren’t in their 70s. I think I’ve seen about 2 since I’ve been here (that’s over 8 years, folks). Sebadoh, while not quite on the scale of Pixies or Nirvana, are pretty damn seminal and a well respected name in the ‘indie rock’ genre so even though I’m not a particular fan, I can’t pass up an opportunity to see them play, especially as it’s in A SMALL PUB.
So, I toodle off down to Chicks Hotel in Port Chalmers, which I’ve never been to, but which seems to be the main ‘alternative’ venue in town now that Sammy’s is defunct. It’s a nice little pub that holds at a guess 100-150 and it’s pretty full. Standard matt black affair, low ceiling with a solitary glitterball. An odd crowd too. Odd in that they appear to have been imported from another town altogether. I had no idea that there were that many indie fans in Dunedin, it’s really quite reassuring, especially as the median age isn’t actually that far from my own. Where do these people hang out normally though?
Bad Sav were cranking out the end of their set as I entered the main arena, and they actually sounded surprisingly good. I had seen a very uncomplimentary review on the web beforehand, so I wasn’t expecting a lot, especially as they were local (no offence Dunedin, but the days of the ‘Dunedin Scene’ are even further in the past than the Highlanders’ glory days). Bad Sav are a three piece, vocals shared between the guitarist and the bassist, both female. They kick out a fuzzy wall of noise, a driving, throbbing drone, reminiscent of early 90s shoegazing with ethereal Cocteau Twins style vocals (the bassist) and tortured Mark E Smith yelps (the guitarist). One of the reviews had said something along the lines of ‘play more than one note’ which I guess was not entirely wide of the mark, but whoever wrote that was missing the point somewhat. I wish I had turned up earlier and caught their whole set, the song and a half that I did see was certainly enough to whet the appetite, and more importantly, encourage me that there are local bands that don’t want to just play Pantera covers.
As I said before, I am (pre-gig at least) no particular fan of Sebadoh, I just jumped on the opportunity to see some quality live rock music. I am quite familiar with Defend Yourself, last year’s offering and (I guess) the reason for touring, but I have only a passing acquaintance with their back catalog, which happens to span two decades. The Chicks stage is tiny, barely big enough for the amps and drum kit, and accessible only through the crowd so the band’s entry is fairly low key as they pick their way gingerly between mikestands and lights and into position, to a warm reception. ‘Good evening Port Chalmers’ says Lou. Not many Americans have ever said that. Lou Barlow is a hairy man, a very hairy man. He looks like a cross between Captain Caveman and the Furry Freak Brothers. His clean cut partner Jason Lowenstein looks about 20 years his junior (but a quick bit of Googlization reveals that he’s actually older than me). Bob d’Amico sits wedged uncomfortably between the back wall and a small drum kit.
They start with an oldie which goes down extremely well. It’s hard to tell exactly how the crowd reacts, from behind my customary earplugs, but there’s definitely a great atmosphere and quite a few heads bobbing. I don’t recognize the first couple but the third one is ‘I Will’, the opener from Defend Yourself, which they rattle through with some aplomb. There is a clear distinction between the older, lo-fi material and the more recent, polished stuff. Defend Yourself is definitely not lo-fi, almost every tune has an infectious melody and there is virtually none of the atonal, grating guitar solo work that litters the earlier work. The set is a good mix of new and old, and consequently a good mix of styles – the good thing about Sebadoh is that not many tunes clock in at much over 3 and a half minutes, so they cram quite a few into 90 minutes or so that they are on stage.
Lou and Jason divide up the vocals roughly 50/50, as well as the guitar/bass duties. Gratuitous instrument swapping is one of my pet peeves, but this is far from gratuitous, although a little awkward to accomplish due to the tiny cramped stage. The two are equally adept at both disciplines, and have near-identical styles and voices too. To the point that I had no idea that it wasn’t Lou singing every number. The songs I recognise are few and far between (i.e. the ones from Defend Yourself) but I nail it the instant Jason picks out the first couple of chords of the album’s brooding epic ‘Final Days’. I’ve been hanging out for this one all night – in my opinion it’s their best song by some margin. It’s a mild let down because the outro requires two guitars to do it justice, and Jason chooses the rhythm part over the lead, but I’m being churlish here – it’s a ripper of a song. And all too soon it’s over. The practicalities of a stage accessible only through the crowd mean they dispense with the rigmarole of ‘we go off, you clap, we come back’, and crack straight into the encore, which seems strange though utterly sensible.
These guys seem genuinely appreciative that so many people have come to see them – they must be accustomed to playing in front of far bigger crowds in the US and Europe, but there is nothing about their manner that says they’re bothered by this obvious ‘come down’. All three interact with the crowd and there is a lot of banter between songs. It’s lucky they’re not the aloof sort of rock band that just mumbles the odd song name and a gruff thank you because there is a LOT of downtime that needs filling, while they tune up, tune down, retune, swap instruments etc.
I think the tour party is just the three of them, not even any roadies – as soon as the gig was over, Lou nipped out to the foyer to sell merchandise and chat with the punters. These aren’t rock stars, these are nice guys one and all…