As a sombre eeriness consumed Howler, Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis put on a special performance

It was a fascinating evening with the acclaimed songwriter.

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Sally Townsend

When J Mascis and Lou Barlow formed Dinosaur Jr. from the ashes of Deep Wound in 1984, with drummer Murph completing the trio, it is unlikely that they expected their unique collage of genre and sound to have the impact that it would. 

The loud/quiet dichotomy which underpinned their mish-mash of influences inspired a generation of indie and alt-rock groups, while their clear thirst for music experimentation would find further outlets in a variety of member’s side projects over the years. 

His newest solo release Elastic Days saw him honing his talent for beautifully mellow folk rock and received plenty of positive press when it was released late last year; so it was no surprise that the Friday night gig of his three-night residency at Howler as part of Brunswick Music Festival sold out fast. 

Known for the eclectic range of acts it plays host to, Howler is the perfect bar for Mascis to showcase songs from both his new record and extensive back catalogue. First, however, Mick Turner took to the stage with a set of lush, layered sounds; looping a riff and then building on it to create a dreamy, engaging soundscape which meandered through a number of unexpected twists and turns throughout his set. 

We are suitably relaxed by both warm up act and choice picks from the bar’s extensive range of beers (“which one’s the lager, mate?”) when J Mascis wanders diffidently up to the microphone with his mesh hat pulled low over his eyes. Offering a muttered greeting of indeterminate enunciation, he commences to indulge in some kind of cosmic unison with the two guitars that have been waiting for him on stage. 

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Not an artist known for his crowd interaction, he lets his music do the talking and an endearing awkwardness is such a part of his folklore that barely a chuckle is raised when he nearly knocks the mic over, first with his cap brim and later with his guitar. As expected, the setlist draws heavily on his new record, which fits so snugly in his canon of work that you would swear you’d been hearing him play these songs for years. 

He sips from a total of three cups of tea and two bottles of water lined up next to him as, like Turner before him, he loops guitar riffs and builds on those central riffs throughout his set. It’s folky, it’s introspective, but the distortion pedal which has been such a muse for him over the years still makes itself heard and more than once a snarl of electricity jolts the crowd out of their entranced reverie. 

From our vantage point to the side of the stage it is clear, looking at the rows of attentive faces, that he is one of those rare guitar players with the ability to hypnotise a crowd with his playing.

His disappearance before an encore is a brief affair which sees him abruptly stop playing, wave vaguely at the audience, wander off stage and wander back ten seconds later. The encore itself consists of ‘Repulsion’ from the 1985 release Dinosaur followed by ‘Just Like Heaven’, an acoustic reimagining of the Dinosaur Jr. cover that has become nearly as iconic as The Cure’s original. 

It comes to a finish abruptly – the manner in which he clearly enjoys closing songs – with a jangling downstroke and a mumbled thanks to the audience for listening, leaving behind a satisfied crowd and three empty cups, tea bags still inside. With the setlist quickly grabbed, another hand from the audience reaches out and snatches one of the cups before its owner happily wanders out of the venue. As mementos go it nearly matches the eccentricity of Mascis’ musical melting pot, but not quite.

By Jono Coote