Sebadoh 2012: Still College Rock After All These Years

I never got to see Sebadoh back in the vaunted "Alternative" 1990's.  After I saw them on 120 minutes for the first time, I was extremely impressed with their live performance of "Rebound." Once I had Bakesale and The Sebadoh in hand, I quickly consumed the rest of their catalog, buying up anything related to Lou Barlow that I could find. Sebadoh records were always good -- Barlow's confessional songs slotted in smoothly next to Jason Lowenstein's rock and roll/hardcore rave-ups -- Barlow's solo records were spotty and, ultimately, less satisfying. Gems popped up on each Sentridoh album, but Barlow seemed more interested in putting all of his songs out, warts and all, than crafting a cohesive record. As he himself admits, many of the songs were the work of a pothead, who thought his lyrics were deep. Offset by the dross, the great songs shine, yet it wasn't until Barlow released his "first" (this can be debated) solo record, Emoh that everything seemed to gel on a record, consisting of all Barlow songs. On Emoh, Barlow became a stylist and not just a songwriter -- he covers Ratt's hair metal wonder, "Round and Round," and gives it surprising depth. He creates a cohesive set of folky acoustic pop songs. While maintaining his confessional tone, the production and songwriting shine. On his next album, Goodnight Unknown, he ratchets up the speed, while continuing to record many of his best songs. These newer songs find Barlow caught between his former stoner self and his current role as father and sensitive singer-songwriter, but he has never sounded better.

So it was with much anticipation that I looked forward to seeing Sebadoh on the current tour. The lineup was stacked -- Jason and Bob's crushingly heavy Circle of Buzzards, Barlow solo, and then Sebadoh. How the years apart had affected Sebadoh's sound and Barlow's newer songwriting chops were foremost on my mind. Sebadoh packed fans into Schubas, a club that barely holds 200 people. The older crowd seemed wall to wall beards and backpacks. Cans of PBR were held aloft alongside expensive mixers, yet all had a good time in what was guaranteed to be a small, intimate set -- at least until Sebadoh rocked too hard.

The opening act, the aforementioned Circle of Buzzards played a short tight set, but I was regrettably only their for the last few songs. Their music is heavier than Sebadoh, but still maintains some of the stop-start dynamics and speed of Lowenstein's songs. They reminded me of a lighter more rhythm heavy Helmet, or, perhaps, Iowa's oft overlooked Tanks, with more vocal melody. They were tighter live than they are on their demos. Lou Barlow came on stage next, peeking nervously from offstage before entering to cheers. He still looks young, his shaggy hair drifting over his eyes. He clutched his ukulele compulsively, with a touch of stage fright, before opening up to the crowd. His in-between song banter was self-deprecating and witty, and he was in exceptional voice. The set mostly contained older tracks from various Sentridoh albums, with a few Sebadoh songs thrown in for good measure. He performed a new song that he wrote about taking his children to school in one of the better school districts in Los Angeles. He cautioned the crowd not to make fun of L.A. before diving into a humorous song that compared L.A. to his home state of Massachusetts, with references to the calf muscles of Hollywood actors. He then performed "Mary," after hinting that he was going to do "The Ballad of Day Kitty," which he should have done anyway. "Mary" went over rather well, despite its sacreligious content concerning the immaculate conception, even though many in the crowd were unfamiliar with the song. An inspiring version of "Soul and Fire" from Bubble and Scrape ended the set. Barlow left the fans wanting more, as many shouted for more acoustic songs.

When Sebadoh came on stage, the crowd surged forward with anticipation, and the band delivered in spades. A fun show only got better as the band ripped into their first songs with Barlow at the mic. Here the very select problems that plagued the set appeared. Barlow forgot lyrics to "Flame," but very few would have noticed if he didn't make it apparent. He later claimed his guitar playing wasn't up to snuff and switched yet again with Loewenstein, whose guitar skills have certainly improved since the earlier records. He was the guitar hero of the night, easily pulling off rocking licks, while Bob D'Amico tightly drummed behind him. Barlow seemed more assured on bass; perhaps, he is preparing for the upcoming Dinosaur Jr. tour with relentless taskmaster, J. Mascis.

The set was filled with many old songs, but also most of the tracks off their self-released Secret EP, that will serve as a teaser for a new full-length next year. These tracks are as tight and fun as anything on the other Sebadoh records. They were a treat live, particularly Loewenstein's "My Drugs" and Barlow's "Arbitrary High." The band maintained a good-natured vibe, as they tried to get Loewenstein to do his country number, "I Don't Mind," and several attempts were made, with Barlow aping the song, telling the audience "I just wanted to sing that line." This easy vibe made the set even more enjoyable, as the band stormed through many songs across their varied catalog, including many from III, Bakesale, and Harmacy, with just a few from The Sebadoh. Standouts included Barlow's "Rebound, "Magnet's Coil," and Loewenstein's "Crystal Gypsy."

All in all, the show was fun and necessary. All my apprehensions that they wouldn't deliver came to naught.  Sebadoh is a band that continues to grow and make records. Their show is somewhat scattered, but as with all great bands, they incorporate their mistakes into the set, coming off stronger because of their mistakes. It is apparent that they still enjoy playing together, and their newer songs add much to their legacy. Plus, someone needs to hold the torch up high for college rock. As Barlow said during the show: "Americana, Indie Rock, Alternative. It used to all be called college rock."


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