Just short of five years since his last visit, Lou Barlow made his return to URSA in Bay View last Friday. The previous appearance had a “working out the kinks” feel, with minimal seating and plenty of folks milling about on the cold concrete. This time, they had the setup dialed in. With rows of chairs filling the room and merchandise lining the walls, there would be no attendees sitting on the floor, and most importantly, no one drunkenly stumbling around breaking wares. It was a welcome step forward.
Approaching the store, slightly before performance time, panic set in at the sight of Barlow already singing and playing. Tip-toeing in, as to not be the guy showing up late and disrupting a quiet show, our care was all for naught as it was just a soundcheck. Once seated, it was a short wait for the set to begin. Barlow walked to the mic at 6:30 on the dot. The much-appreciated promptness made total sense, later, when the set hit the two hour mark. Opening with a trio of newer Dinosaur Jr songs, it occurred to us that we should brush up on their recent catalog, with “Back To Your Heart” being the only one we recognized.
From there, the set weaved through three-plus decades of Barlow’s back catalog. To some extent, you knew what to expect—a healthy helping of ’90s Sebadoh tracks, a Folk Implosion tune sprinkled in here and there, and a handful of solo songs from the past decade. As tidy as that sounds, that’s a pretty large catalog to pull from. “Hits” nestled seamlessly alongside deep cuts, but with Barlow’s consistency over the years, it’s hard to complain about being introduced to new songs from various stages of his catalog. The treat of the set was the two songs that compose Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me album closer, “Poledo.” The song is the true oddity of that album, but also a foreshadowing of Barlow’s future work with Sebadoh.
Frequently switching guitars that he’d delicately balance beside him, Barlow would use these moments to regale the crowd with stories of constructing the songs in his set. Whether it was taking synthetic peyote or being amazed by the acoustics in the Eagles Club’s basement, the stories emerged as an integral part of the evening. Barlow’s lighthearted self-deprecation injected comedy into an already pleasant vibe. The crowd responded by engaging in banter in a way that’s not often possible at a show. It was a true example of humility in action.
As the set proceeded, the street was populated by a near constant stream of passersby. We couldn’t help wondering what these people were thinking as they moseyed past. Did they notice the crowd seated within the store? Were they aware of the musician playing, and if so, were they wondering who this important person was? With a normal music venue, there’s some natural separation from the outside world that keeps you captivated. With the store’s outer walls made up entirely of windows, it allowed for an ever present awareness of the outside goings-on and the interesting juxtaposition between the two.
The multi-hour set flew by, which is an amazing feat in itself. For folks with short attention spans who were raised on punk rock, brevity is the path to success, and when a performer can triumph over such a notion, it’s the stuff of legend. It was evident that if Barlow chose to play well into the night, the audience was poised to take the ride with him. Upon reflection, we were all part of something extraordinary and poised to let it roll for as long as it could go.