J Mascis – Chicks Hotel, Dunedin – 01/03/15

Before we start, I have to raise my hand and admit that I am not a great fan of Dinosaur Jr or J Mascis. That’s not to say I don’t like them, I merely am not a particular fan. I like the sound, but I don’t know very much of the material. If I lived in London I probably wouldn’t be going to this gig. Hell, if I lived in Wellington I probably wouldn’t be going to this gig, but I’m starved of halfway-decent live music just lately so I’m willing to take a punt out of sheer desperation…

Chicks is fast becoming the indie/alternative venue of choice for the South Island. I’m guessing Mascis is playing here because Lou Barlow told him good things after his visit last year. He would presumably have said something like “Hey J there’s this really small pub out in the boondocks which has no stage and no backstage and hardly anyone can see the band but the people there are really cool and appreciative! Play there!”. Hence, it was a sell out several weeks before the show. Chicks is only a couple of hundred capacity at most, but ‘Sold out’ is an unfamiliar concept in Dunedin so it’s nice to see someone ring the ‘full house’ bell once in a while.

The support act that was playing as I wandered in was a unaccompanied guitarist, presumably a local fellow. I have no idea what he was called, as there was no indication whatsoever on any website or poster and he had the self-deprecating cheek to leave the stage at the end of his set without saying who he was. COME ON dude, it’s Marketing 1.01, tell the people your fucking name! He was pretty good though, bashing out a Spacemen 3 type wall of fuzz, awash with every effect available. Occasionally he would throw in some angst-ridden wailing but it was essentially just guitar. I would investigate further if I knew who the fuck he was…

By the time the white haired, bearded Uncle-Jesse-from-Dukes-of-Hazzard lookalike J Mascis takes the stage, as expected Chicks is rammed to the gunwales. To start with the only place I can find to stand is in the back room – much as I love it, Chicks Hotel is totally unsuitable for bands who are vaguely popular. I mean completely fucking useless. At least half the capacity is not actually in the same room as the stage, which is mental. For an act that performs his entire set SITTING DOWN, the number of people who can actually see the guy drops to about 10% of the paying customers. My height of 6’3” normally affords me a good view from anywhere in a venue but tonight I couldn’t see more than the top of J Mascis’s baseball cap, even stood on tip toes. Now I know what it’s like for short people (like my wife) at gigs. The photo below was taken with my arms aloft, I couldn’t see anywhere near as much with my own eyes. The reception is raucous, and Mascis launches straight into something of his recent solo effort Tied To A Star. I have only ever listened to it in parts, in shuffle mode on Spotify, so I’m not going to know the names of anything. He’s not particularly into speaking or engaging with the crowd, barely uttering more than a ‘thanks’ every couple of tunes.

The most prominent thing I notice about Mascis, is what a fucking incredible guitarist he is. The acoustic parts are so intricate, and cleanly picked, he is wasted on the indie/alt scene – it’s a pleasure to hear such an exponent of the acoustic guitar. The electric folky sound is reminiscent of Roy Harper / Jimmy Page but played harder and with more angst.

Uncle Jesse Duke / J Mascis
J Mascis / Uncle Jesse Duke

It’s a steel string, so there is scope to introduce plenty of effects. Like ALL of the effects. He drifts from solo acoustic to heavier, more overdriven stuff and finally announces ‘here’s something from the 1990s’ to a rapturous crowd. I’m presuming it’s a Dinosaur Jr song, don’t ask me which one though. Some are louder/heavier and greeted with bigger cheers and more singing along, I surmise that these are the Dinosaur hits. So full and rich is he able to make the sound, at first I thought there was someone else on stage providing rhythm while he rips into the solos, which are quite fiddly, but I can’t see anyone (I can barely see Mascis though, remember). Then I go through a brief period of thinking he’s got 4 hands, but I soon come to the conclusion that he’s using a loop pedal to sample a couple of bars of chords, then shredding over the top of that. All very expertly done – had me fooled. I’m floored by the ‘metal’ nature of his soloing, it’s most rare to see an indie/alt guitarist doing all that stuff. He is easily the best guitarist I have seen in Dunedin 😉

After little more than an hour though, it’s all over, he thanks us for coming, and gets up from his stool as if to make for the dressing room. Seeing the solid wall of people between him and ‘backstage’ he concedes that as there’s nowhere to go, he “may as well do the encore right now”. Cue more cheers, obviously. And what an encore. Took me a while to identify it, but it was a tortured grungey fuzzy cover of Just Like Heaven by The Cure. Brilliant, best tune of the night (although that’s possibly because it was once of the few that weren’t entirely new to me). And then he really does leave, mumbling thanks as he leaves. I don’t think he’s in the slightest bit ungracious, just very self conscious. None of the endless self-congratulatory bullshit you get between songs like with most artists, he doesn’t pull ‘solo’ faces or strike ‘solo’ poses, he just quietly and humbly goes about his craft.

It was great to have such a seminal figure in alternative rock play for us in a pub in a small settlement outside of Dunedin, it really was. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t see fuck all. Thanks J for coming to play for us 🙂

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