Concert Review: Mudhoney at Bowery Ballroom: May 12, 2013
If Kurt Cobain were alive today, he would want to be Mark Arm.
That thought crossed my mind while watching Mudhoney perform at the Bowery Ballroom last night in front of an older and devoted crowd of fans. The show was not sold out (at least not in advance), and neither was their Saturday night show in similarly small Music Hall of Williamsburg, though I doubt that the members of Mudhoney cared. This night was about letting it all out, not selling out. It was about bringing grunge rock back for the fans that were there in 1990, and possibly never left.
I’m a latecomer to the Mudhoney party, having been too young to appreciate pre-Nirvana grunge music in its time. Over the past several years I’ve made an effort to go back in my Seattle-based time machine and immerse myself in the sound that I missed out on, which includes bands like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and the original darlings of Sub Pop, Mudhoney. So even though they’ve been around for 25 years this was the first time I’d ever seen them live. Though I’m a new(ish) fan, I’m in it for what made them great in the first place, not their new(ish) music. I didn’t buy their new album, Vanishing Point, released last month. In fact, the only two albums I own are their self-titled debut and the EP that came before it, Superfuzz Bigmuff. I was a little nervous that the band I was going to see last night wouldn’t live up to the 25 year old sound coming through my speakers.
Spectacularly, Arm and co. haven’t aged a bit. For one night I was transported to Seattle, circa 1989. There was no artifice to it, no gimmick like a special reunion or the anniversary of a “legendary” album that is only legendary to its own devoted fans. When I wrote about seeing Dinosaur Jr. back in December, I coined the phrase “manufactured transcendence” to describe what has happened with that band and the album You’re Living All Over Me. There is nothing manufactured about Mudhoney, and frankly nothing all that transcendent. This was pure primal rock music, distortion and fuzz, screaming and prowling all over the stage. Arm put on a show last night that wasn’t even for the 500 people in the audience; it was for four – himself and his three bandmates. At no point did he let up, his screaming voice – sounding stronger than ever – increasing in intensity as the 90-minute set went on. Playing rhythm guitar on the first batch on songs, I was impressed at how much he could put into the vocals while still contributing so much with his instrument. However, when Arm let go of the guitar for (just about) the duration of the evening, about seven songs in, he really took over. I’ve appreciated certain leads of late, notably Justin Young of the Vaccines and Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist; Arm owned this stage just as powerfully as any of them. He was at once Mick and Iggy and Kurt all rolled into one, though for a much smaller group of fans. In an industry where there is so much pressure to evolve, Mudhoney has kept their music and their act primitive for 25 years. It doesn’t fill an arena, but it serves them well just the same.
Having been on a run of seeing bands like Atlas Genius, Vampire Weekend, and Friends, the crowd last night was a welcome departure from what I’d become accustomed to. I don’t know if I was the youngest person in attendance, but it’s not out of the question. I don’t hate hipsters – I’ve been called one more than once – but it was pleasant to be in Bowery Ballroom without a single hipster in sight for just one night. It was also nothing like the punk and garage rock shows I’ve been to lately, such as the Hives or Wavves. There the crowds were rowdy and infused with the adrenaline of the show. The Mudhoney crowd was, as noted, older and as a result somewhat tame. I suspect that in addition to being the youngest, I may have been the only Mudhoney virgin at last night’s show. I imagine that to see Wavves in 2013 you have to like Wavves, and similarly to have seen Mudhoney in 1990 you had to like Mudhoney. However, to see Mudhoney in 2013 you have to love Mudhoney. That’s the difference between last night’s crowd and the ones I’ve been part of lately. Nearly everyone there last night was passionate about the music, so much so that you could see it on their faces without needing to see any moshing or crowd surfing, of which there was very little. Musically I was transported to 1989, but the crowd was all grown up. Like the band they were watching, this was a grown up crowd that evolved in maturity but not in musical taste.
You could see this phenomenon clearly when the band performed their first-ever single, “Touch Me I’m Sick,” about halfway through the show. Everyone was screaming, everyone was singing along. This song is vicious and distortion-heavy and fully of energy and angst; it was described once as follows: “the song’s raw, primal energy made it an instant anthem which still stands as one of [grunge’s] all-time classics.” Courtney Love, discussing her decision to give up stripping and pursue a career in music, once said, “I heard Mudhoney’s ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ one night, and I was saved. I knew that I could scream on cue like that.” It may not be the mid-‘90s anymore, but grunge music has never been better than it was last night during “Touch Me I’m Sick.”
If Kurt Cobain were still alive Nirvana probably would have broken up at some point, as fame, fortune and egos tend to drive people apart. Sometime in the past few years they likely would have reunited to headline Coachella and sell out arenas like Madison Square Garden at over $100 per ticket. Kurt would have hated all that – the inevitability of that path is why he’s no longer with us. All he would have wanted would be to play in front of 500 people who were lifelong fans, playing for no one but himself. Arm described his band like as the “court jesters” of the scene, and he likes it that way. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown; meanwhile, there’s very little pressure on the court jester. Cobain was the king, only he wanted to be the clown. Arm is having the last laugh.