Dinosaur Jr. understands that rock music's most valuable asset is its rich and varied history. Since the band’s 1985 debut “Dinosaur,” guitarist and singer J Mascis has crafted songs that recall at once the bloated majesty of ’70s rock excess and the amateur brevity of punk. They played the Bluebird Nightclub on Thursday night with Easy Action.
Like any good rock band, there’s a Rise/Fall/Rise arc to Dinosaur Jr.’s career. They first made waves as indie rock heroes in the ’80s before graduating to alt-rock radio and festival regulars in the ’90s. Though the band retired in 1997, the 2000s saw Dinosaur Jr.’s legacy stabilized as blogs lionized their early records and aspiring guitar heroes began name-checking them. They reunited in 2005 and have since released four albums.
Dinosaur Jr. began their set with “Thumb,” the penultimate track from their major label debut and the closest the band has ever come to penning a power ballad. “Thumb” is not their most famous song—that would be “Feel the Pain"— nor is it their best song, which would be “Green Mind." But as a hymn to Gen X malaise, it’s the one that feels right.
“There never really is a good time/ There's always nothing much to say/ Pretty good, not doing that fine/ Getting up most every day,” Mascis croaks on the studio version. Live, I can’t hear what he says in his sleepy drawl over the squealing guitars and throbbing bass notes. I assume it is the same, and that it is more meaningful to the crowd now than it was when they were my age.
Before the show, I found myself glancing around the Bluebird. The people struck me as different. They glanced nervously at their phones when, by 9:45, Dinosaur Jr. still hadn’t taken the stage, and they complained about getting up for work when the band still hadn’t played a note by 10:00. They elbowed past you for a spot closer to the stage, but did so with a friendly, “Excuse me there, bud.” They took pictures with the flash on. They were, in a word, old.
Theory: Indie rock was never as radical as the blogosphere would have you believe. Punk had to happen, but the idea burned itself out quickly. Speed, attitude and amateurism could only go so far. The kids who picked up the pieces were the indie rockers, and they took the general punk ethos and applied it to ideas that had been kicking around rock radio since the ’70s. Dinosaur Jr. has roots in hardcore, but it’s also a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.
So it’s fitting that we’re still here in 2017, aging Gen X-ers and indie kids alike, worshiping Dinosaur Jr. Indie rock is built on nostalgia, and Dinosaur Jr. carry with them a legacy that looms over their last decade of work. Their reluctance to pander to audience expectations and lean on older material is unsatisfying but admirable.
The Bluebird became an alternate reality Thursday night where flannel and Meat Puppets T-shirts are still worn, people still vie for bassist Lou Barlow’s attention from the back of the venue and new Dinosaur Jr. songs are accepted as being decent replacements for the old ones.
But it also became an alternate reality where indie rock never lost its edge. The songs are so loud that you can’t decipher their melodies from up front. The guitar solos are earsplitting in their volume and intimidating in their virtuosity.
I wish Dinosaur Jr. still sounded like the present, but that's not the case. For better or for worse, indie rock has moved on. Distorted riffs are out, jangly arpeggios are in. But Dinosaur Jr. proved Thursday night the dream of the ’90s is alive in Bloomington. That's enough for now.