Show Review: Lou Barlow @ Great Scott 9.8.15
by Terence Cawley (Biology), published September 11th 2015
photos by Ben Stas (Journalism/English)
Between playing bass for legendary indie rock band Dinosaur Jr., leading his own excellent indie bands Sebadoh and Folk Implosion and revolutionizing lo-fi as Sentridoh, Lou Barlow has earned cult icon status by spending the better part of the last 30 years reshaping underground music in his own downhearted image. So when Barlow came to Great Scott to promote his new solo album, Brace the Wave, he gave his many devoted fans the precious opportunity to experience a show casual and spontaneous enough to reveal the bizarre idiosyncrasies of the man behind all those pretty sad songs.
Cameron Keiber, formerly of local indie band The Beatings and currently releasing music as Eldridge Rodriguez, opened the show with a passionate acoustic set full of forceful strumming and confessional lyrics, with Keiber often stepping away from the microphone to shout his vocals while stomping his foot.
Barlow, wielding an acoustic guitar, a ukulele with classical guitar strings and an old analog synthesizer for which he repeatedly expressed his fondness, then proceeded to play most of Brace the Wave. The album successfully combines the stripped-down intimacy of Sentridoh with Sebadoh’s emotional heft, and Barlow’s vocals, especially on the heartbreaking “Repeat,” filled his new songs with the wounded beauty that his best work so effectively communicates. On many songs, Barlow would use a pedal to loop his chord progressions while he improvised synthesizer lines over them, adding extra depth and yearning to his music. Unfortunately, technical difficulties often derailed the set, and even when the equipment was working, Barlow often forgot how to play his own songs, despite the paper sheets with chords and lyrics that he had brought onstage. While Barlow sometimes appeared so genuinely upset with himself that one couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy, at other times he simply took the stumbling blocks as opportunities to joke and banter with the crowd. A Massachusetts native who recently moved back to the state and whose mother was apparently in attendance, Barlow treated the show like a homecoming, waxing nostalgic about old local haunts and telling rambling stories which revealed that, in person, Barlow is just as much of a self-loathing oddball as on his records.
The song selection for the remainder of the concert was eccentric but generally solid. With a career as long and rich as Barlow’s, it would be impossible for him to play everything his fans might want to hear, so he didn’t even try. Instead, Barlow elected to mix fan favorites with a wide range of more obscure tracks. Highlights included the anthemic Dinosaur Jr. tune “Imagination Blind” and early lo-fi curio “Punch in The Nose,” which Barlow played after asking for requests and ignoring all of the more popular song titles shouted at him. The freewheeling nature of the performance did have its drawbacks, as when Barlow’s faulty memory forced him to truncate “State of Mine,” one of the stronger tracks from Sebadoh’s most recent album, 2013’s Defend Yourself. Fortunately, he finished strong by playing the 1993 Sebadoh gem “Soul and Fire,” which Barlow sang and played with a tenderness so moving that it had an almost hypnotizing effect on the audience. At turns amateurish, sloppy, uncomfortably personal, funny, melancholy and beautiful, the show Lou Barlow brought to Great Scott encapsulated all the seemingly contradictory traits which have made him such a fascinating and beloved figure in the world of indie music.