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    mercurynews.com

    Reviews: Energetic Dinosaur Jr connects

    CONTRA COSTA TIMES

    ANYONE WHO knows anything about Dinosaur Jr — even an older, supposedly calmer Dinosaur Jr — should have known better.

    Forgetting earplugs would have lasting effects.

    Oh, it’s not a bad sort of pain. It’s kind of like having a good workout and knowing the suffering the next day is for a good cause.

    Fifteen years after the original Dinosaur Jr broke apart in an ugly clash of egos between guitarist J Mascis and bassist Lou Barlow, seeing them together again Thursday at the Fillmore was nearly miraculous. That they were intense, focused and beautifully sloppy while enveloping the sold-out hall in a massive thunderhead of noise was just gravy.

    Putting together a semi-cult band from the late ’80s and early ’90s that can put aside old differences for a big comeback tour (and probably more money within a few months than it’s made in its entire existence) naturally evokes a comparison to last summer’s Pixies tour.

    It’s as if people are going back and wondering what could have been if Nirvana had not written "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and apparently saved guitar rock from the likes of Poison and Warrant. It’s as if alt-rock lovers gave the whole garage movement its window from 1999 to 2004 and realized the new revolution fell far short of what could have been. So why not bring back some of the old bands for a shot?

    That’s too simplistic for these guys. Dinosaur actually went on without Barlow, and later drummer Murph, to ride a bit of the Nirvana wave, largely as Mascis’ solo band still using the brand name. Comparisons to Nirvana are unavoidable, even in 2005, once the trio is out there chunking out its vicious guitar rock with all those twisting, volume-driven dynamics.

    The biggest difference was that Dinosaur was perhaps three to four great choruses away from being as big as Nirvana. The other big difference between the bands was clearly Mascis’ ability as one of the most underrated guitarists in rock history. Dinosaur fans wouldn’t trade that for any of Nirvana’s platinum records.

    Maybe it’s better that way for fans wanting to keep him to themselves, and as usual, the now gray-haired Mascis was nothing short of inspirational on Thursday. From opening chunker "Quest," the noise was drowning out his vocals. And for once, that was fine. Barlow’s bass-playing and Murph’s drum-pounding set a low-end canvas for Mascis’ shrieking brilliance, which settles somewhere on the guitar hero scale between Jimi Hendrix and Neil Young.

    Dinosaur was in full punk rock mode by the second song, "Raisans" — causing the first of a half-dozen mini pits among fans near the stage — before they galloped through the rarely played "Yeah We Know."

    This wasn’t a show spanning the entire Dinosaur Jr life span, which Mascis extended through eight albums into the late ’90s, including one big hit single, 1994’s "Feel the Pain" (which wasn’t included Thursday, even though it would have been the obvious big show-ender). This tour, again, is about the original trio, what it did on three albums and what it can still do. And perhaps what it should have done.

    To know what Dinosaur Jr is still capable of, fans didn’t have to look farther than "Bulbs of Passion," with its massive dynamics that started slowly and built up speed and power like a freight train headed down a steep grade. They switched gears flawlessly, especially into Mascis’ squealing solos over Barlow and Murph’s pounding. Same for a huge version of "Kracked," on which Mascis fired up the crowd with some long soloing with his wah-wah pedal.

    The band is reportedly getting along well, especially when one considers how Barlow sued Mascis and wrote less-than-flattering songs about his former mate while fronting Sebadoh. But Dinosaur was never a group to hug each other and act like frat brothers onstage. The live connection obviously existed Thursday when band members looked at each other when a song had a transition coming, or when it was time to figure out when Mascis was coming out of a solo. The midsong structure changes were flawless, not an easy task when wading through so much noise after so many years.

    One of the big things that separates Dinosaur from punk rock, other than a real musical ability, is the band’s sense of when to add extra parts to a song instead of just blasting through a verse and a chorus. They know how to set up peaks and valleys, which really helped them get into songs such as "In a Jar." Their stage energy increased as they went, peaking with first encore "Just Like Heaven," during which Mascis took the Cure classic and punched up the melody by soaring all over the place with his whammy bar.

    They say there aren’t plans to record new material, which is a shame after seeing how much energy and life they still possessed at Thursday night’s show. Merge Records just rereleased the first three records — "Dinosaur Jr," "You’re Living All Over Me" and "Bug." It may have to satisfy fans for now. Considering how unlikely this tour was a few years ago, though, anything can still happen.


    Tony Hicks is the Times pop music critic. Reach him at 925-952-2678 or [email protected].Â

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