J Mascis – The Studio

IMG_0596You could have been forgiven, were you not a fan of J Mascis, had you not noticed that he had taken the stage at The Studio last night. As a guitar tech finished off a few final adjustments on a cutaway Gibson acoustic, the house lights still up, a man in jeans and a black, patterned T-shirt walked up to the red drumstool at the front of the stage, sat down behind the microphone and the music stand that held a stack of lyric sheets, picked up a guitar and started playing.

The hair, though, to be fair, should have been the giveaway. Under a trucker’s cap that was just small enough that it sat on top of his head was a fraggle of silver hair that framed a pair of red-plastic glasses. J Mascis is, surely, the most unassuming rock star America has produced, and last night he performed a set that distilled the live-music experience down to its most fundamental elements.

The show, such as it was, was a stripped-back, pared-down experience. Mascis spent the evening seated on his drumstool — a nod, perhaps, to his drumming roots in Deep Wound; he played his guitar; he sang. He played well; the man is an extraordinary guitarist. His main guitar of the evening — there was a second acoustic, which he picked up for a couple of songs — was the Gibson, a sunburst acoustic with an electric pickup. He played it hard, the buzzsaw drone of an overdriven acoustic the signature sound of the evening. The softer songs, the more conventionally acoustic numbers, rang out clear and sharp. And then there were the pedals. J Mascis had two guitars and a Vox amplifier, but, I swear, he had every effects pedal known to music. And he used all of them. A typical song structure saw a picked or strummed intro, a classic acoustic-rock guitar-and-vocal verse and chorus, and then an abrupt transition to an overdriven, distorted electric solo. Guitar players will know that an acoustic guitar is a very different instrument from its electric neighbour; the playing styles and techniques are quite different. But Mascis switched, effortlessly, from one technique to the other, on the same guitar. Rare indeed is the guitarist who can play electric guitar on an acoustic; Mascis did so with ease.

The solos didn’t always seem to fit in the songs, though. Acoustic songs would suddenly shift into electric shredding, then back again. A stomp on a pedal, and massive delay, or flange, or wah-wah, would kick in. Another kick, and the sound would be pure and clean again. I asked a couple of fans at the end of the show what they’d made of it; “That’s just how J plays,” they told me, “that’s just what he does.”

What he does, then, is the most minimal of performances. He made almost no attempt at all to engage with the crows that had filled Auckland’s Studio; only a second or two as he turned the pages of his lyric book indicated the end of one song and the start of the next. At the end of the main set — an hour and ten minutes — he placed his guitar on the floor, the delay and reverb still ringing out, and walked off the stage. During his extended guitar wigouts, he stared intently at his strings; a guitarist as accomplished as J Mascis doesn’t need to concentrate that hard, I wouldn’t have thought, so perhaps he was just trying to avoid acknowledging the presence of an audience. After a one-song encore, he mumbled “All right, see you soon,” and walked away again. The opposite of a rock star, J Mascis was, last night, the very best busker on K Road.

The more observant reader will have noticed, at this stage in the review, that no mention of song names has been made. And none will be. I was impressed by what I saw last night; I enjoyed the show. But I’m not familiar with J Mascis’ oeuvre. That’s not a pre-requisite, of course, for reviewing a concert; reviewers typically snag a setlist from the stage at the end of the show to help with writing up the gig. But no such list was available last night. I asked the guitar tech, at the end of the show, as he was packing up the kit, for one; he tapped his temple in reply, as if to indicate “He keeps it all up here.” When you’re a one-man show, I suppose, you can do that. So I can’t tell you what he played. What I can tell you is that he played it bloody well.

– Steve McCabe

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