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.
Their new audience will dry up even faster. Harmacy is the sound of a band mimicking themselves. It's not fair to dismiss artists entirely for one failed effort, but Sebadoh's confessional lyrics, pop-noise-folk sound, and bedroom stylings have been ripped off by so many kids that the group needs to expand its sound, not refine it further. Barlow hinted at his openness to new ideas with the drum loops and moody atmosphere on the fine Kids soundtrack. He'd be wise to continue experimenting.
Sebadoh might want to examine openers Those Bastard Souls for starters. The band, a side project of the Grifters' Dave Shouse, didn't exactly enrapture the audience. But they were compelling, unlike Sebadoh. The Grifters are a band with limited resources, stuck with bluesy riffs and standard rock arrangements. The only distinction they've added in the past is their lo-fi recording technique. But now at least Shouse acts like he's looking for reinvention. Onstage, as well as on his Souls debut, Twentieth Century Chemical, Shouse has added to the standard rock band setup fiddle, piano, saxophone, percussion gadgets, and one of those small boxes with a dozen cables you often see at electronica performances. Immediately, the sound is more lush, complex, and textured. Songs from Chemical like "Good Luck Split Town Today," "The Train From Terminal Boredom," and "Remembering Sophie Rhodes" fused dirty blues riffs and cosmopolitan feel into a sound that excited Shouse, if not the crowd. But that's the crowd's fault: Shouse acted like a performer, not the guy next door.