Live It Down

Sebadoh, Those Bastard Souls
Saturday, Feb. 8

Never mind their somewhat meritorious achievements on record -- Sebadoh are notoriously bad live. Guitarist and frontman Lou Barlow admits this, 'fessing to his dewy-eyed admirers on the Web, "I apologize to people in New Orleans, Minneapolis, Boston, Chicago, Toronto ... and wherever else I complained, performed bad or otherwise acted like a baby ... I can only say I'm working on it."

I suppose he is: At the Fillmore, his band performed badly, but never acted like babies. Beginning with the earnest, controlled version of "Brand New Love" from Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock, and finishing with Harmacy's "I Smell a Rat," the entire show was marred by technical fuck-ups (all onstage, no problems with the house PA), low energy, and a perfunctory set list picked mostly from their two most recent records.

Sebadoh are trying to redeem their reputation as a miserable live act; supposedly the band actually spent two weeks practicing before this tour. (We're led to believe that this is a break from the crockpot method of yore: simmer slowly and wait for things to heat up.) And it sounds as if they're trying to quell the silence between songs, too. Before the band came on, as Barlow fiddled with his amps and pedals, a homemade intro tape played over the house system. Throughout the rest of the night a snippet of a Taco Bell jingle or a carnival organ or an old television commercial or Mary Lou Lord's voice broke the hush like segues on a hip-hop record.

However annoying, especially since the tape at the beginning gave away all of the bits before the band took the stage, the spots are necessary filler. Crowds don't know how to respond to Sebadoh; applause peters out after a few claps. There's not enough beat to dance, not enough punk to mosh. Barlow's pathos (nearly all the fans know he's involved in a co-dependent relationship with his wife and obsessed with his former bandmate, Dinosaur Jr.'s J. Mascis) is difficult to swallow without a fifth of scotch and maybe a razor. If Sebadoh care about improving their live show for their fans, they might want to invest in couches and bong hits.

Both might have helped audiences appreciate bassist Jason Loewenstein's timid "Careful" from Bakesale, a song Barlow dedicated to Flipper, "a band in San Francisco that we like very much," and another Barlow weepie, its damaged guitar solo notwithstanding. The pace picked up a bit with Loewenstein's punkish delivery of "Drama Mine," his voice boiling, "It's like wasting everything/ On someone else's dream."

The technical problems didn't begin until Barlow's capo popped off at the beginning of "Ocean." Not a big deal, but then the guitarist cut "Dreams" after the first few licks. At least he had a sense of humor. Barlow launched into Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down," and sang it through the first chorus. With the appropriately ironic gesture (it's so difficult to leave the quotes off that last phrase), the Bics began to flick.

Two songs later, Barlow's guitar went out on "Skull," a tune so perfect in its mixture of beautiful lyrics and pop songcraft that it can produce that weird goose-bump chill. Instead, Sebadoh finished it half-assed and short. But that wasn't even the worst of the night's flubs.

At one point, drummer Bob Fay and Loewenstein swapped instruments. After tightening the snare (?!), Loewenstein pulled the drum head off its stand and called a technician onstage. Realizing the fix might take minutes, Barlow stepped up to the mike for "Sorry," a solo tune off an obscure 7-inch compilation. It's a gorgeous song about that nasty apologetic period at the end of a relationship. Barlow sings in round with himself as the production builds to catharsis. Here, a tinkering electric guitar and frail lyrics fell apart just like the song's narrator. For a minute all the mistakes didn't matter.

You'd think Sebadoh could afford to hire a roadie with technical skills. The band travels in a tour bus these days -- precisely, a huge pastel-gray cruiser with Tennessee plates and an airbrushed Native American on the side offering a cow skull to the heavens. Even though Barlow acts like a populist, hanging out in the Fillmore foyer before the show and setting up his guitar himself, his unprofessionalism shows contempt for his audience.

Sebadoh could stop playing live. XTC did it throughout the 1980s and produced a few decent records with a modicum of commercial and plenty of critical success. But no matter how much Sebadoh apologize, no matter how many times they bore audiences, new folks continue to show up. Witness the signage catfight between Live 105 and KOME: Both covered the area in banners and handed out either calendars or earplugs before and after the show, competing for the modern-rock dollar. Sebadoh, too, are no strangers to monetary concerns. Last year, when a writer at Request asked Fay about touring, the drummer smiled and made cash-register sounds. Must be to pay for that bus.

But sooner than later, the entire audience is going to evaporate. If Sebadoh made the transition from bedroom twiddlers to legitimate rockers with Bubble and Scrape, they still haven't figured out what comes next. And Sebadoh appeal to a fickle, fickle lot -- the kind of fans who relish obscurity and the proprietary relationship between band and listener. This didn't matter when the band released Bakesale, their finest, most mature and developed record to date. But their once-faithful legions were lining up to leave when the modern-rock radio stations began to sniff around.

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