When the Seattle grunge scene blew up in the early 1990s, the scramble for underground cred began immediately. It all seems tragically moot now, as few of the alt-rock superstars of the day remain except Pearl Jam, the most maligned band when cries of “sellout” reached the mainstream press. Meanwhile, groups who fostered the scene yet never hit the big time soldier on; the Melvins just played Milwaukee for the zillionth time last month, and hot on their heels, Mudhoney rolled into Cudahy on Thursday night for a sold-out performance at X-Ray Arcade.

Both of these alt-rock pioneers have continued to crank out albums this whole time, but for the past decade or so, the Melvins have stuck largely to milking the oldies at live shows, whereas Mudhoney has always leaned heavily into new material. The group’s most recent album, Plastic Eternity, came out in April, in keeping with its every-five-years album cycle, and similar to 2018’s Digital Garbage, it showcases an increasingly pissed-off Mark Arm. Once considered a poster child for the sarcasm-and-apathy generation, the Mudhoney frontman was never one to mince words; his messages just got lost in all the noise.

The band went with a slow-burn start to Thursday’s show, opening with “When Tomorrow Hits” before slamming into “In ‘N’ Out Of Grace,” a pair of songs from the ’80s to get the largely middle-aged crowd moving early. “Jesus, take me to a higher plaaaaace!” screamed Arm, his voice every bit as caustic and potent some 35 years after he first recorded the song. Then came the comical final track off Plastic Eternity, “Little Dogs.” At first, this song might set fans to racking their brains for hidden meaning; it’s just a tribute to the joys of little dogs, though. You know how a lot of people say they hate little dogs? Screw those people—there’s your hidden meaning.

If you were looking for grand metaphors, you must’ve been thinking of some other band. There was precious little banter at X-Ray Arcade, though; Arm and company (drummer Dan Peters, lead guitarist Steve Turner, and bassist Guy Maddison) preferred to let the songs do the talking. And while almost half the show was comprised of songs from the band’s last two albums, they fit seamlessly in with the back catalog, Arm’s blunt societal critiques tying it all together. It was impossible to hear “Let It Slide,” for instance, without hearing the Nirvana songs that were almost identical but with catchier hooks and smoother vocals. The song, a warning about the costs of making it big, may not be explicitly about Kurt Cobain, but it’s a perfect example of Arm cutting through the industry bullshit in as few words as possible, and in retrospect it could apply to almost any of his more successful contemporaries.

Mudhoney has certainly never altered its style to try and sell more records, but recent material has trended toward a more lush, arguably modern psych-garage sound. Songs like “Move Under” and “Tom Herman’s Hermits” and “Nerve Attack” gained potency in the live setting, both in terms of the instruments gelling and the visceral force of Arm’s voice. Vestiges of punk have fallen by the wayside over the years, but even if the tempos are slower, Mudhoney lacks for nothing in terms of volume or intensity.

Then there was the unholy pairing of “Sweet Young Thing Ain’t Sweet No More” and “Touch Me I’m Sick,” the two sides of a debut single that amounted to ground zero for grunge, nestled in the middle of Mudhoney’s set. These tunes could’ve set off a deep downward spiral of Gen-X nostalgia for folks who happened to have seen the band 30 years prior, opening for Nirvana at what was then the Mecca Arena. It was Mudhoney’s second of many visits to Milwaukee, and Nirvana’s last. Hearing these songs in a small club now, essentially the same size venue Mudhoney has headlined its entire career, it was easy to imagine a scrappy young version of Arm on this same stage, or Cobain for that matter. This was the type of room all that music was written for, until it wasn’t.

Whereas most legacy acts tend to save some hits for the end of the set, Mudhoney is enjoying some of the best reviews of its career these days as well as plenty of local radio airplay, so there was no problem with raining down new material on the crowd to climax the night. In case Arm had left any doubt as to his political leanings, the blistering set-closing run of “Paranoid Core,” “Human Stock Capital,” “21st Century Pharisees,” and “One Bad Actor” erased it, his voice rising to a gravelly banshee wail. The world is lucky to still have this man screaming at it. Because the world is stupid, but sometimes if you scream loud enough and long enough, people will eventually hear you.

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About The Author

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Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, You-Phoria.com) and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.