My favorite cliche of live music reviews is of the show that begins “midway through the set.” The prompt is usually a setup for pointing out an unplanned yet revelatory moment or some mid-orgasmic realization. Such a lead acknowledges what anybody attending a show has become accustomed to: expecting the unexpected. Audiences are now self-aware to the point of being as conscious of the act of performance as the performers are. Although contemporary bands like the Knife and the White Stripes don personas that play a part in their performance myths, concertgoers weary of masks or filters often await a break in the performance fabric (such as when the mysterious lead singer makes an off-handed comment between songs or when a mistake jars the static reproduction of a song) to reveal a greater truth (the behind-the-scenes story) and engage a “truer” experience.
Which makes the resurrected Dinosaur Jr. so much fun, because the band simply doesn’t buy any of this shit. More than twenty years ago, this trio of teenage schlubs helped plant the seeds for an entire “alternative” rock generation by simply plugging in and rocking out. Now, this reunited trio of middle-age schlubs keeps the formula just as simple; instead of fussing over a package, the musicians play good songs that they want to play. Certainly, fans and critics have their personal highlights from each show, but the performances are consistently honest from start to finish. There are no mid-set revelations or encore fireworks, because the band lays itself bare from the get-go. The band’s “plan” has always been blunt, as bassist Lou Barlow revealed when I spoke to him in 2005: “[W]e were throwing [influences] back in [the audience’s] face at insane volumes and really alienating people . . . .” Perhaps because the plan was so . . . obvious, its simplicity became simply profound.
As such, Live from the Middle East is as essential a document as the original albums. The bulk of the DVD documents a complete concert at the intimate Boston club during the reunited original lineup’s 2005 tour. The location is apt considering the venue’s history as a hardcore haven and frequent stop on past Dinosaur Jr. tours. More important, Mascis’s brother Phillip Virus directs with little pomp and circumstance, which is suitable because the show itself is breathtaking. The band wastes no time by opening with shreddy renditions of “Gargoyle” and “Kracked” and proceeds to burn steadily stronger. Mascis hunches over and swings his guitar like a teenage Arthur wielding Excalibur wildly for the first time. Murph’s fills are often Bonham-like in ferociousness and funkiness. And Barlow looks and sounds infectiously confident.
If there is a telling moment, it is singled out by Virus: Toward the end of the set the camera cuts to the audience for the first time to reveal a sea of muted faces, seemingly frozen and overwhelmed from the sheer physicality of an hour-plus of this music. Though the serenity suggests a dumbfounding, by-the-power-of-Grayskull moment, it is very much the result of the band’s non-performative performance. Like being invited into (a really good) band’s private rehearsal, Live from the Middle East captures a rare band willing to wear its heart on its sleeve with unabashed pride. The DVD also features an encore from a New York City concert that same year, as well as All Tomorrow’s Party footage, a WXPN radio interview and performance, and peer props from Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Kevin Shields, and others. But these extras are just icing. Such is the genius of Dinosaur — a band content with the near-extinct idea of good music and cheap thrills.