Last November, during a star-studded tribute to his work at Disney Hall, Bob Mould announced that in the coming year, he’d be doing a series of gigs featuring Sugar’s landmark 1991 album Copper Blue, which drew an excited “Woop woop” from the audience. He then talked about the new album he and his current band were about to record in a way that suggested something special on the way. “Except for one song, nothing’s over two minutes-fifty seconds.” A year later, that album, Silver Age, has surfaced, and the Copper Blue tour has hit Los Angeles, and both events have been things of joy.
This kind of celebration of the past is a fairly new thing for Mould, whose live sets have typically focused on his latest work, even if that work hasn’t been released yet. Husker Du had the reputation of playing mostly songs you’d never heard before; even if you picked up a copy of Flip Your Wig the day it was released and went to their show that night, they’d have moved on and be playing songs from Candy Apple Grey already. You had to shed any expectations of hearing more than a few old songs before walking in. His solo tours have largely stuck to this model, though there have been a few special events that broke this tradition, including an incendiary set of Husker and Sugar songs with LA duo No Age backing him up at New York’s ATP Festival in 2009.
But perhaps one of the keys to his newfound ability to embrace the music of the past comes from enforcing the break with the people from his past. In the same Disney Hall speech, he shut the door on any possible reunion with either of his former bands, noting how much he enjoys playing with his current mates, bassist Jason Narducy and drummer John Wurster. On a purely musical level, it was hard to argue with the choice, as the two provide the strongest rhythmic foundation he’s had since Huskers.
At the El Rey, they threw themselves into the songs, setting up a muscular backdrop for Mould to splatter his gobs of pigment. That massive, universe-obliterating guitar sound of his – which was buried by the PA during the first new numbers but finally corrected to its proper level of “louder than everything else” by mid-set – is one of the most distinctive and wonderful sounds in rock, and he continues to be great at doing it.
Hearing Copper Blue performed under such ideal conditions turns out to be as good as anyone could have imagined it would be – it’s one of his high points, and clearly an album with a lot of resonance; “Hoover Dam” drew tears from one of the guys standing next to me. Following this, the band did a mini-set of songs from Silver Age, which impressed powerfully and suggested that this might be another album people would pay to hear in its entirety twenty years from now.
The concluding romp through half a dozen Husker Du songs was icing on the cake, but honestly, I’d have come just for the icing. These are songs Husker had quit doing by the time I saw them in 1987, and prior to that Disney Hall show, I never thought I’d get to see childhood favorites like “Celebrated Summer” and “Chartered Trips” played by their creator. I like the idea that Bob’s moving on, staying relevant in the moment, and if this turns out to be our only chance to bask in his glory days, so be it. But he seemed to be enjoying himself playing these songs, taking pride in witnessing our collective spasms when we all heard the opening drum pattern for “Something I Learned Today” and lost out shit. That music may be old, but it’s capable of giving much pleasure in the moment, and these days, I’m ready to take pleasure wherever I can find it. Long live Bob.
(Random Husker-related note: a couple months ago when I was sick, laid up on the couch and watching every documentary on Netflix, I tuned into a movie about the history of mushrooms that had Grant Hart talking in it. Just hours later, I saw one about Gay Bear culture, and Bob was in it. I started watching cooking shows to see if Greg Norton would turn up, but he never did.)