SAN FRANCISCO — Last November, when Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis played Slim’s in support of his solo album, the Bay Area was shrouded in several serious wildfires. In a strange case of deja vu, as Dinosaur Jr. began its three-night stint at the very same venue, Northern California is once again dealing with power outages and choking under a thick blanket of smoke.
This synchronicity seems appropriate insofar as the band’s music is a little like these fires: wild and out of control while simultaneously tragic. The influential grunge band founded in the mid-1980s in Amherst, Massachusetts broke new ground by combining J. Mascis’ vulnerable and sensitive lyrics with his feedback-drenched guitar work. During Monday night’s show, the trio unleashed a sonic barrage of material from various points in its long and storied career.
Surrounded by a wall of amplifiers, Mascis summoned fiery tones from his guitars at ear-splitting volumes. The house P.A. system struggled to match the amplifiers’ volume as the band launched into “Thumb,” from 1991 album Green Mind. Mascis stood nearly motionless at the mic while melting faces with his fiery guitar tone. The evening’s very first guitar solo made it obvious that Mascis hasn’t lost a step, and his reputation as a guitar hero among early grunge bands like Sonic Youth was well earned. About three quarters of the way through “Thumb,” Mascis switched off the distortion. Possibly thrilled to be able to hear themselves again, fans roared with approval. After a few brief strums of reverb-drenched clean chords, Mascis tapped on a foot pedal and once again filled the room with a wall of sound.
On “Budge,” from 1998’s Bug, the volume topped 105 decibels at the very back of the club as the band played a very Sonic-Youth-like outro.
The songs followed a definite pattern: most started out relatively tame with a couple verses and choruses, during which Mascis’ voice was often difficult to pick out from the blasts of guitar. Eventually the song gained a bit of momentum and Mascis launched into a guitar solo, at which point the roar from the stage approximated some combination of Jimi Hendrix and a jet engine. During the sonic assault at the end of the second song of the night,”Tar Pit” (from 1987’s Living All Over Me), Mascis used a wah pedal to create vowel-like shrieks from his guitar.
Reactions to the band’s more recent material was a bit more reserved. The trio ran through “Going Down,” off 2016’s Give a Glimpse of What You’re Not; “Crumble,” from 2007’s Beyond; and “Pieces,” from 2009’s Farm in the middle of the set.
One of the band’s biggest hits, “Feel the Pain,” from 1994’s Without a Sound, whipped fans into a frenzy with the song’s signature opening riff, even before Mascis launched into his acrobatic guitar solo. “Start Choppin” and “Out There,” from 1993’s Where You Been?, got the sold out crowd moving on the packed venue’s floor.
Mascis, wearing a T-shirt and keeping his long gray hair held at bay with a baseball cap, said little and remained posted up at his elaborate pedal board for most of the set. Bassist Lou Barlow’s face was completely obscured by his long brown hair for most of the show. Drummer Patrick “Murph” Murphy was stationed between opposing walls of amplifiers and in front of a screen showing cartoons, claymation and various psychedelic projections.
At one point between songs, Barlow listed the various modalities of marijuana he’d enjoyed earlier in the day, including transdermal patches, tinctures and old-fashioned smoking.
“I always get way too high when we play San Francisco, and that’s still the case,” he said.
After rousing versions of “Freak Scene,” off Bug; and “Gargoyle,” off 1985 debut Dinosaur, the trio exited the stage.
When the band returned a short time later, it wrested the biggest reaction of the night from the crowd by launching into its iconic cover of The Cure’s 1987 hit, “Just Like Heaven.” Mascis transformed the song with his blistering lead guitar, yet the romantic and sensitive lyrics fit his emotional register as a singer perfectly. The band’s rendition added a chaotic, white-knuckle element to the song’s depiction of love and romance, which somehow feels more accurate than the original.
Dinosaur Jr. finished with “Knacked” and “Sludge Feast,” both from the 1987 album You’re Living All Over Me.
The evening began with a solo acoustic set from Steve Gunn, formerly the guitarist for Kurt Vile’s backing band, The Violators. Gunn culled material from his recent albums. “Ancient Jules,” from 2016’s Eyes on the Line, sounded a little like Jimmy Page’s lush acoustic work with Led Zeppelin. Gunn lulled the audience with his understated performance of songs like “Lightning Field” and “Vagabond,” from 2019’s The Unseen in Between. His calm before the storm provided the perfect aperitif to Dinosaur Jr.’s sonic assault.