At the time Husker Du was busy changing my life back in 1986, neither Bob Mould or I could have guessed we’d be together twenty-five years later at LA’s most prestigious symphony hall for an all-star review of his career featuring many of the hot acts of the moment. But life sometimes takes you into places you don’t expect, and if Mould seemed a little aw-shucks awkward as he addressed the crowd – “I’m not good at things like this, I’m not good at … THINGS… except for that thing I just did for the last fifteen minutes” – he seemed game enough for the celebration while his amp was cranked up. And even those of us in the audience who found the surroundings a trifle austere (don’t even TRY to get a pit going in that place) were floating in inch off our seats at the opening notes of “I Apologize” and “In A Free Land” as he made his entrance backed by the members of No Age.
This kind of legacy set is a rarity for Mould, who has always preferred to keep his sets strongly centered on his latest material, sometimes previewing unreleased songs. There was every possibility he might do the same thing for this show and leave the historical portion to the other people on the bill. But this year has seen his star on the rise, with a well-received guest spot with the Foo Fighters’ latest album and tour, and the publication of his autobiography See A Little Light: The Trail Of Rage And Melody, written with Michael Azerrad. And the results showed the power of good timing and the influence of at least one hip person in the LA Phil operation. It was a proper professional tribute show, tasteful enough for the Phil season subscriber adventurous enough for a presentation of a modern American songwriter, with special guests famous enough to be well known to the KCRW listener. But it was also satisfying for those of us who grew up ordering Husker Du records through the mail at the time when their existence felt like a well-kept secret.
Mould’s current rhythm section of Jon Wurster (Superchunk/ Mountain Goats drummer, radio comedian and ex-tambourinist for Rocket From The Crypt) and Jason Narducy (bassist for Verbow and Telekensis) backed the roster of special guests early in the evening. Britt Daniels from Spoon and gutarist Jessica Dobson opened the night with a pair of songs from Sugar, touching on the undeservedly obscure Beaster EP with “JC Auto”. Craig Finn and Tad Kubler, former Lifter Pullers and current Hold Steadies, were up next and gave us the first trace of spittle on a steaming version of “Real World”. Margaret Cho gave a hilarious and heartfelt talk about being a punk rock geek and a nice version of “Your Favorite Thing” with Grant Lee Phillips on guitar. This was the predictable segment of the night, all great songs, very well done, reverent to the original recordings and highly enjoyable, peppered with chatter between the acts and genial MC Matt Pinfield – when did you hear Bob’s music, wow, tell us about that, and then what about your own music, etc.?
Ryan Adams, the night’s only solo acoustic performer, was the most memorable guest with his haunting renditions of “Black Sheets Of Rain” and “Heartbreak A Stranger” from Mould’s first two solo albums. The former is one of Mould’s most raging and desperate pleas on record, delivered as a howl through a wall of electric sound, but the lyric became even sharper in the context of Adams’ spare guitar work and chilling vocal.
But by giving Mould the bulk of the stage time in the second set and encouraging him to dig deep, it was also a rare opportunity for old fans to see him sing and play old Husker Du songs, which he did with furious intensity.
The presence of No Age, who have covered Zen Arcade in its entirety at least once, along with a couple of Husker-heavy sets with the man himself, was a selling point from the beginning. They are one of the few bands of today that embody the peak SST vibe, the lack of confinement to any given style but always remaining in the ballpark, and they made a perfect foil for Mould on “In A Free Land”. It was a moment that stuck out during the first half not just for its loud-fastness but for its stridency. “Government authorized education/ don’t mean a thing… the only freedom worth fighting for’s what you think… everybody’s an authority in a free land.” By a year later, his only political lyrics would mostly be about the futility of politics (see the aforementioned “Real World”.) But that early willingness to be open about idealism is an important part of the whole package, even if it’s not a heartbreaking pop song, and it made the night’s biggest adrenaline shot yet.
Dave Grohl had an unusually long guest segment, possibly owing to the last minute cancellations of Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. This turned out to be absolutely fine. Not only does Grohl make a reliably entertaining cameo in any circumstance, his set consisted of playing rhythm guitar and singing backup to Mould and his band for a cherry-picked run through the Husker catalog. On “Hardly Getting Over It”, a Nick Drake-worthy miserabilist anthem of aching beauty, Grohl added soaring lead figures. When they dove into the Warehouse songs “Could You Be The One” and “Ice Cold Ice”, it was easy to hear what Grohl meant when he confessed to “mercilessly ripping Bob off” in his own writing. Maybe it’s not so much that early Foo Fighters sounds like Nirvana as much as, both of them kind of sound like Huskers.
When they reached back to Zen Arcade for “Something I Learned Today” and “Chartered Trips”, the night reached a new peak. These were ecstatic moments, the kind of thing I thought I’d never see again, transcendent performances by a band up to the task, the song’s author roaring the words as primal screams.
Grohl handed off his guitar to Wurster as the feedback faded, hopped onto the drum seat and began pounding out the hypnotic, pulverizing intro to “New Day Rising”, which kicked in with the force of a jet engine. Perhaps no other song has ever managed to say so damn much using four chords and three words. Like Ornette Coleman and Beefheart, it’s extreme music that’s also good-time music, a sound that makes it easy to find your feet once you get past your head. The composition is so bare-bones, that the delivery becomes everything. On this night, with Mould well fired up and Grohl looking like the happiest kid in the whole world behind the kit, they delivered it.
Mould paused to say a few words before finishing the night with a trio set. He noted that he would be doing a handful of shows with Wurster and Narducy next year featuring a Copper Blue set, noting “It would be fun to get the old band together, but I just love playing with these guys.” (Though he seemed to be referring to Sugar in that instance, it was a little odd to hear the names of Grant Hart and Greg Norton mentioned only once all night, by one of the interviewed guests.) He also promised they would begin work on a new album in January, and “except for one song, nothing runs over two minutes forty-five so, you get the gist… I still have things I wanna do, I didn’t get a gold watch tonight.” Most poignantly, he noted, “Without all that anger I found no way to express but through music, we might not have found our way here tonight.”
The finale, a good-time singalong on “See A Little Light”, brought most of the participants back to the stage for a chorus. At the final ovation, he looked genuinely touched. Unlikely though it was, it was a night that produced some incredible music and gained some measure of recognition for a great artist who deserves nothing less.
Photo by aboynamedstu via flickr Creative Commons.