I never thought I would cry while listening to DINOSAUR JR. But, ‘Emptiness at The Sinclair’ which was recorded this past May during a live stream broadcast, is something very special.
With track one, you can feel something missing. It is unmistakably Dinosaur Jr. J Mascis mumbles monotone into a microphone while constantly riffing guitar licks that don’t make sense if anyone plays them. He’s like a Thelonius Monk of the fret board. Rolling Stone ranked Mascis on their 100 Greatest Guitarists list.
But the lack of crowd noise makes this live recording feel like a garage show that nobody came to. The stilled atmosphere captured on the record is a sad reminder of what COVID has done to our public experience.
“It was odd going back to Harvard Square for the Sinclair show, lots of closed shops, less car and foot traffic, my first time back in a big-city since it all went down. I had lived in Boston for about 10 years from the late 80’s-90’s and the bustling square was a common destination to look for records and meet with friends. The empty pandemic feel spooked me,” said Lou Barlow, the band’s bassist, in a press release.
The Sinclair theater in Cambridge, MA, which Dinosaur Jr has played many times throughout their decades-long career, would be a cacophony of cheers and applause for any other performance and when the band plays their cover of The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’ that audience engagement is so sorely missing.
“Playing to an invisible audience and a real-time sparsely populated room of people doing their jobs (running lights, sound and staring at screens) was something different and, again, weird,” said Barlow.
The cover has been a fan favorite since it was featured on the band’s 1987 album ‘You’re Living All Over Me’. It’s an endearing indie-grunge version of the new-wave classic, but the chorus drops really low for some super aggressive riffing. The drummer and bassist chime in for live performances just to shout “you” in the chorus.
It’s while listening to Murph and Barlow scream “you” into a void that you really get the sense of what’s missing. There is no collective audience rising to meet them, there is no cheer, there is no elation. The lack of audience engagement, right at the point when it should be at peak, gut punches you right in the feels.
How do you showcase something which is not there? It’s a philosophical question which goes all the way back to the discovery of the number 0, and signifies an evolution in humanity’s ability to perceive the space around it. This album is maybe the next evolution in live album releases, although something which can only be done once. It manages to play on something so novel without degrading it to a gimmick. Mascis occasionally talks to the virtual audience, but only mentions the emptiness of the room once or twice.
I saw Dinosaur Jr. at The Met in Pawtucket, RI at a time when I moved to Providence alone. I had a roommate, but she was in New York visiting her girlfriend most of the time and I had few friends in the city. Even fewer who wanted to go to shows with me.
Where I’m from in Vermont you have to drive two hours to see a live band so being in Providence, where I could just take an Uber or walk to a show, was exciting beyond belief. I went to a lot of shows that summer and I went to almost all of them alone.
The show had been sold out, so I got my ticket from a guy on craigslist. We met up before the show and hung out for a while. I met his friend and we talked about the Providence music scene while they smoked weed in their car. I had stopped smoking years prior but it was cool to just talk to some strangers about mutual musical interests and hear about growing up in the city.
The venue was packed. Shoulder-to-shoulder in an old brick warehouse north of the city. When Dinosaur Jr. plays, every particle of air shifts with the sound. The room pressurizes with volume. The space between you and the next person is electrified with this current of sound and it connects you in this shared experience.
To hear Emptiness at The Sinclair and hear the current go out with no conductors to connect it brings up so much. It reminds you of everything that we’ve lost in terms of public experience and connection. To hear Dinosaur Jr play for a theater of ghosts and remember when you were one of those ghosts, really hits hard.