J Mascis + Kurt Vile at Subterranean

April 1st, 2011: As seen on Time Out Chicago (PDF)

Descending the spiraled staircase Friday night at Subterranean, lo-fi skuzz’s reigning wooly king, J Mascis, was trademark conductor-ish, taking a seat without mouthing a word, simply thumbing a page on a purple binder affixed with two LED lights before jangling out the scratchy angst of the ’91 Dinosaur Jr. gem “Thumb,” howling through a mane long gone silver, “There never really is a good time / There’s always nothing much to say.”

To many, Mascis unplugged is a chain saw without a chain. And his long overdue solo album, Several Shades of Why, which he’s taken to tour the nation with Philly-based protégé Kurt Vile as opener, is the same old tease if you’re just waiting for the shred. One audience member at Friday’s show booed audibly and held up a thumbs down.

The dude obviously missed the point of the skeletal acoustic beauty that shines through when Mascis blesses fans with these solo tours. Friday, he equally balanced a handful of numbers off Several Shades with classics from Dino glory days—from Where You Been to 2009’s reunion effort, Farm. Turning “Ocean In The Way” into a muted-fret chug-a-lug heel-dragging anthem, Mascis’s endearing squall of a throat carried infinitely more character than his guitar ever will.

Vile on the opening side was all guitar, all shred, all the time, wielding at least five different axes that completely drowned out some of his finer Vic Chestnutt quiverings heard about a heavily Smoke Rings For My Halo–oriented set. But in a nostalgic, foot-dragging way, he slathered enough melody in there to move things forward. Particularly, a late Springsteen cover “Downbound Train,” had Vile shaking hair and fingers about a cherry-trimmed Gibson like a poster child for garage-band nation. It really didn’t matter what the hell he was singing.

Later Mascis threw us some chunks of fuzzy meat from time to time, stomping on a pedal on “Get Me” to loft a soaring scale, looping some hammer-ons on Several Shades’ title track, and jarring a lonely Neil Young–ish down-tune pluck on “Can I.” But they were always quick flashes of distortion. Vile made a cameo on two bedroom crooners, “Not Enough” and “Make it Right,” doubling up the latter with a warm wash of thick reverb to let the new-gen meets old-gen charm linger.

Still banter-less through a trio of back catalog encores, teasing one last bit of pedal-boosted electric fury on another Dino cut, “Tarpit,” Mascis flashed a smile when a superfan assured him he loved the rocker “more than coke and pot.” At show’s end, he thanked everyone exactly once, folded up his purple songbook and ascended back into that labyrinth of a staircase. Meanwhile the asshole who booed earlier lit up a cigarette and stumbled his way out the same.

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