J Mascis - Not Enough
Words by David Williams, photos by Charles Poladian
Why so many critics and fans believe J Mascisâ€™ acoustic solo efforts are so surprising, I will never understand. Sure, heâ€™s the frontman for Dinosaur Jr., whose powerful volume in the studio goes to eleven (and beyond when played live); but with his world-weary, almost Neal Young-esque approach to singing, a mellow acoustic album, like Several Shades of Why, is a perfect fit for Mascis. And even in a venue like the Music Hall of Williamsburg, a room big enough for his typically ear-crushing guitar playing, the audience was instead treated to soul-crushing guitar mastery.
This is the surprise of such an acoustic show, where a songwriterâ€™s lyrics would take precedence before anything else. Granted, as a lyricist, or even as a singer, Mascis has a tendency to mumble lyrics, trading clear enunciation for emotive growls and slurs that can be just as effective as a razor-sharp line. And as J Mascis went through his 14-song set (featuring a cover of Edie Brickell’s “Circle of Friends” and an encore comprised of Dinosaur Jr. fan-faves, â€śLittle Fury Thingsâ€ť and â€śThe Wagonâ€ť), it was not hard to feel the power of his performance, which came through just as strongly with his brilliantly arranged guitar parts.
In such an intimate set-up, it was wonderful to be reminded that, even thrown in the ranks of guitar powerhouses, J is a brilliant guitarist in his own right. Solos, as rare as they were in his set, were effortless and as hauntingly beautiful as his emotive fingerpicking.
His subtle sense of humor was also on display, as he often took sips of water while guitar loops played on without him. Or, during his few addresses to the crowd, he made a gentle jab at Phish fans (or, maybe an appreciative nod to the demanding Brooklyn crowd) from when he took the encore and said that fans in Vermont donâ€™t quite understand how encores work.
The set alternated mostly between stuff from his latest album, and his first acoustic effort, Martin and Me. The most memorable moments came from the slow-burners, like â€śMake it Right,â€ť which featured show opener Kurt Vile on guitar, playing the same mixed-down-but-red-hot lead that he does on the album. Or, the Dino Jr. tune, â€śOcean in the Way,â€ť from 2009â€™s â€śFarm.â€ť â€śCan I,â€ť the darkest song moment of the night, outshined the rest of the set as Mascis plugged in his overdrive pedal and let an extended, shredding guitar solo fly.
Speaking of Kurt Vile, his set was perhaps the biggest surprise of the night. Though his recent Smoke Ring for My Halo is similarly mellow and acoustic-based, when he and his backing band, the Violators, perform these same songs live, theyâ€™re an entirely different set of songs. Live, the tracks from Smoke Ring for My Halo, like the title track and the poppy â€śJesus Fever,â€ť have the sort of hard-edged garage-punk found on his other studio releases, and with a vitality all their own.
If their respective album releases surprised fans and critics of J Mascis and Kurt Vile, then their show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg offered the best surprise of all: even when theyâ€™re turned down a bit, they still make noise.