Report: Bob Mould/Chris Brokaw In Mass.

 

At the Iron Horse in Northampton, Mass.,
on November 9,  the two guitarists
respectively demonstrate why they are among independent rock’s most essential
players ever.

 

By Jennifer Kelly

“In 1985, I went to see Hüsker Dü at Maxwell’s,” says Chris
Brokaw, on a break from his acoustic set. “And about eight years later, I was
playing in a band called Come and Bob was playing in Sugar, and we toured
together and hit it off.” Since then Brokaw and Mould have played together
intermittently, hitting Northampton
last six years ago on Halloween, but it hasn’t gotten old for Brokaw. “It is
still a genuine thrill to play shows with Bob.”

 

You never know who Brokaw’s going to show up playing with. Last
time I saw him, he was playing guitar in Thurston Moore’s Psychic Hearts,
before that drums in the New Year, and before that guitar again in Clint
Conley’s Consonant.  He also sat in with
Rhys Chatham’s guitar orchestra, swatted flies with the Baseball Project,
played lead for Steve Wynn and, of course, before all that, did time with
groundbreaking 1990s bands like Come and Codeine. When I ask him what he’s been
up to lately, a collaboration with Geoff Farina (ex of Karate) comes up, as
well as a joint recording session for the Dirt Music and Tamikrest from Mali, who
Brokaw met during the 2008 Festival in the Desert. He’s also just starting to
piece together another solo album, the first since wonderful, criminally
overlooked Incredible Love. He’s got
a couple of tracks on tape with members of Tortoise. He drops this so quietly
into the conversation that I don’t really process it until he’s already talking
about something else.   

 

Brokaw’s set, like Brokaw, is low-key and unassumingly
excellent, criss-crossed with references to other bands and other projects. When
I arrive, a little late, he’s midway into a caustic song I don’t recognize,
something about “Danny Barracho, ugly and macho.” Brokaw is playing by himself,
seated, with a plugged in acoustic guitar, and not making any obvious
concessions to showmanship beyond a little rhythmic rocking. Even so, there’s
something very rock about the aggression with which he strums, the hoarse
intensity of his voice. You can hear a little bit of a band in the way he plays
guitar, the ghost of a bass player rising up through the lower notes, a shadow
of a drummer coming through in the way he pounds out his chords. There’s also a
real writer at work, alongside the journeyman rocker, who can slip casual
references to the Hapsburg Empire into his songs, or drop an incandescent aside
like “Sleep is a pearl at the bottom of the bay” into “BKO,” a Dirt Music song.

 

People are assholes. People are talking right through his
set. I hear a woman screeching something about her mother and her job during
Brokaw’s beautifully wry break-up song, “My Idea” and almost miss the final
wrenching ending of “Xs for Eyes,” because of uncontainable laughter from one
of the tables right up near the front.  Brokaw appears not to notice, just bringing
out one beautifully played, carefully conceived song after another – “Stagger
Lee” from his latest pre-war Blues collaboration with Geoff Farina, the
melancholy “Mexican Moon” from Incredible Love, a medium-length acoustic
guitar instrumental.

 

 

Then it’s Mould’s turn, like Brokaw on his own and
accompanied only by guitar, first an acoustic, then two electrics, one
dedicated solely to the “punk rock stuff” at the end of his set.    

 

Mould starts with “Wishing Well,” from his first solo album Workbook,
a song that, like much of the acoustic set, has a really lovely, lilting folk
melody, though it is pushed well past the edge of folk by Mould’s aggressive,
scrubby guitar playing and high volume, rock-oriented vocal delivery. “Here Me
Calling,” off Black Sheets of Rain, is likewise a volatile mix of
modality and brashness, its fluttery folk flourishes bristling with yowls and
shouts. You begin, during this section of the show, to understand why it made
perfect sense for Mould to collaborate with Richard Thompson once, and later,
during the rock part, why Dave Grohl might call him in for a session.

 

Sugar’s Copper Blue is probably my favorite part of
the post-Hüsker catalog,
and Mould hits it pretty hard, starting with anthemic “Hoover Dam,” its big
chorus (“Standing on the edge of Hoover Dam”) swirling in an almost Celtic way
over fractious, frantic strumming. You have to check to make sure that Mould is
still holding an acoustic guitar, because it is pretty intense and pretty loud
and pretty rocking even so.

 

Once Mould has revisited “See a Little Light” and “No
Reservations,” and, indeed, the whole first section of the show without much
chatter, he pauses to begin a running thread about naked men, coffee and
liberal politics. He lets us know that, if we noticed a fumble during the
previous song (I didn’t), it was because he’d had a random image of two coffee-drinking
companions stark naked on some sort of a “daddy calendar”. He’s clearly
comfortable playing gay-friendly Northampton
and has, in fact, spent the afternoon playing at the farmers’ market. This
leads, somehow, to a story about a guy at Mould’s gym in San Francisco’s Castro district, who lifts in
a skimpy wrestling singlet, but strips completely naked when he goes outside
after the workout. “And this is sort of okay in the Castro,” he says
wonderingly, clearly cheered by the idea. He goes on to describe how the naked
man stopped at a Starbucks, where the health code prohibits nudity and pulled a
sarong out of his bag, wound it on, and went in for coffee. Mug in hand,
outside, the sarong came off again.

 

He tells this story, and a related series of anecdotes about
nakedness in and around a string of songs that includes “Hardly Getting Over
It,” “Thumbtack,” “Sinners and their Repentances,” still acoustic, but still
aggressive. The songs, from all phases of his solo career, are a fascinating
mix of hard and soft, their melodies jutting out aggressively, then curling
into soft, accessible shapes. Mould hammers at his guitar, like Brokaw, eliciting
a band-like degree of friction and forward motion from his instrument, and
seems always to be funneling more intensity into his singing than the notes
will take. He breaks off into little yelps and roars and “na na na”s, as if the
melody, however, pretty, is just a starting place, and even the slower songs
seem to slope forward into the next phrase – as if they’d really like to go
faster.

 

Mould isn’t really touring a new album, but he’s got a
biography all finished and due to be published via Little, Brown next summer. “It’s
my top 100 stories, all edited and strung together,” he announces with a grin,
“except for the new ones that I’m telling tonight.” Someone asks him who will
read the audio book, and Mould says that he hasn’t thought about it. “Maybe
I’ll sing it,” he adds, “Kind of a recitato.” And with that, fittingly enough,
he launches into “Life and Times,” the first song in the electrified portion of
the program.

 

There’s a strong thread of connection between all three
parts of the program. Mould plays the electric essentially the same way he
played the acoustic, attacking sharply, strumming hard, yet with the electric,
you notice a beautiful shimmer hanging over the notes. His voice, too, which
sounded a little pushed over just acoustic, seems just right now, not too loud,
not too soft. “The Breach” follows “Life and Times,” with Mould tracing its
melody up the scale in shadowy half intervals and ruefully observing
superheroes’ scorn and human fallibility. The next one is “I’m Sorry Baby You
Can’t Stand in My Light Anymore,” and there’s a brief detour to talk about
Mould’s recent sessions for the new Foo Fighters album. He plays just a little
of it, pulling back, he says, because, “I think it might make Dave mad.” Then
it’s back to Copper Blue for “Your Favorite Thing” and “The Act, The
Act.”

 

The “punk” part of the evening is underway now, with Mould
picking up the tempo and scrabbling away at yet another guitar. He’s 50 now,
and like much of the audience, showing it, and yet it is pretty clearly the
height of the evening when he dusts off Hüsker Dü’s “Celebrate Summertime,” at
the close of the regular set, or Sugar’s “If I Can’t Change Your Mind,” and Hüsker
Dü’s “Makes No Sense at All” for the encore. Now you can hear how Mould always
slipped deceptively catchy melodies into even the most head-banging of his punk
anthems, and how punk aggression could turn tuneful, even in the confusion of
the mosh pit.

 

No one is moshing tonight – it’s a sit-down early show and
about as civilized as dinner theater. But Mould looks like he could still
thrash out a roughhousing soundtrack for it, even one you could hum to yourself
on the way home.

 

 

 

 

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