Bob Mould kicked off a somewhat unusual solo electric tour at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Mass. last night, with a 75-minute set that drew evenly from across his four decade career.
Mould may have embraced a sunnier perspective since moving to Berlin three years ago — as evidenced by his new solo album, “Sunshine Rock” — but he’s still a passionate punk rocker at heart, as one outspoken fan discovered.
Speaking to the audience nearly an hour into his set, Mould expressed his joy, saying that his personal life was perfect while suggesting the outer world had become something of its mirror image. In light of this fact, he encouraged everyone to vote. “If we don’t make our voices heard…,” Mould trailed off, but someone from the audience shouted, “We’re f–ed” which Mould agreed with and repeated.
A fellow in the center-back risers took exception to this (in the loft space about the size of a basketball court) and felt empowered in to say as much to the performer. Though it was difficult to make out the substance of the patron’s un-amplified complaint, the tenor was clear enough.
After several back-and-forths Mould, clad in a simple black T-shirt and blue jeans, challenged the patron, “Are you with us or against us?” In light of his response, Mould offered to pay double the man’s admission fee for him to leave.
“Double my money,” enthused the financially-inclined young fellow (who the protracted exchange subsequently revealed has absolutely no money in the stock market), “I’ll take that!”
So he clambered down from the rafters soliciting his fellow ballcap-sporting buddies – over a half-dozen in all – to join him. Of course, though they all left, it was not at all clear Mould’s “deal” extended to his friends.
With that Mould ripped into “Hey Mr. Grey,” off of 2014’s “Beauty/Ruin,” with the fitting sentiment, “so filled with rage and then you disengage,” followed by Sugar’s equally appropriate, “If I Can’t Change Your Mind.” After finishing the latter, Mould cracked wise: “Do you think I have anger management issues?”
Overall it was a triumphant night, though this was certainly far from guaranteed. Despite Mould’s deep catalog of catchy, ringing, distortion-laid alterna-rock with Hüsker Dü, Sugar and more than a dozen solo albums, solo electric is not the easiest thing to pull off. Indeed, this writer saw Mould play solo electric show in New York around the time of 2005’s “Body of Song” when Mould briefly tried to reconcile his interest in dance music with guitar. Suffice to say it came off very poorly.
The principal issue for someone like Mould, who’s made his bones with loud power trios, is that electric guitar can sound strangely thin suddenly absent the thundering rhythm of bass and drums. Mould didn’t compensate with volume — the amp he brought would fit in the carry-on bin and wasn’t much louder than a garage roar, a respectable amount of time after Dad last asked for you to turn it down.
The song cannon helps, of course — fueled by ringing guitars, jangling in stereo choruses of finely coiffed distortion, and hooks that could be Fruit Loops carameled together into something super sweet and crunchy. Even so, the failure of the first few numbers to fill the room was discomfiting. But the bespectacled singer warmed to his task, loosening up and letting his personality come out in a way that otherwise might be overshadowed by the sheer volume.
It was really about Mould’s personal rhythm. Bobbing his head and bopping enthusiastically around while he soloed, he sort of resembled an ebullient headphone-wearing teen jamming out to his favorite track. It called to mind a Mould comment from a First Avenue show a quarter-century hence, where Mould noted he’d seen Neil Young play an extended solo, and imagined the clerks at Guitar Center finally coming up to him and asking, “So, are you gonna buy the guitar?”
Witnessing Mould’s boisterous playing, it’s obvious he doesn’t need to buy it: He already owns it.
Mould also employed doo-wop and skat-like vocalisms to fine effect for bridging important drum or bass parts and bring different energy to choruses. As the show went on, he grew more animated, building great momentum after the somewhat unsteady beginning.
Even before the fan outburst Mould complained that not enough of his peers were “using their weapon of influence on America,” and presumably not addressing the relevant issues. In comparison, Mould recalled going to San Francisco in the early ’90s and lamented those who succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses. “I lost a lot of people,” he said, “And I’m f–ing pissed about it.”
Having turned 59 in October, Mould may be bitter, but he was confident and engaging from the stage. He made no bones about having his own opinions. “I am an old person now so I get to say whatever the f–k I want,” he told an audience that looked old enough to have experienced Sugar in all its earl ’90s glory.
He repaid fans with a healthy mix of new tracks and classics including “The Descent,” “Stand Guard,” “Celebrated Summer,” “Shine a Little Light,” and a rare performance of “I’m Never Talking To You Again,” off of Hüsker Dü’s 1984 classic “Zen Arcade.” For an encore, Mould performed the Dü single ”Makes No Sense At All” with its B-Side, “Love Is All Around,” aka the theme song to the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Will Johnson opened the evening with an acoustic set, though his spare strumming was often so soft and understated that it felt almost a capella. In brown dungarees and an olive collared button-down, the bearded Johnson looked like he fell out of an L.L.Bean catalog into these New England environs though as an Austin boy he complained immediately about the ten-degree temperatures and the “grown-up cold.”
The former Centro-Matic frontman (who credited Hüsker Dü with forever changing how he heard music) revisited band tracks “I, the Kite,” and “Flashes and Cables,” as well as a mix of solo tracks including “Predator,” “Call, Call” and “Carousel Victor.” Johnson’s tenor has a plaintive wail like a wind along the plains, recalling Smog’s Bill Callahan if he’d been left for dead in the arid heat of Johnson’s Austin home, fomenting a fetid aromatic assault on the sense while surrendering its essence to slow, strangely beautiful desiccation and decay.