J Mascis at Whelan’s on 12 January 2015

There aren’t many guitarists of J Mascis’ era who inspire as much devotion in fans of the instrument as he does. The Dinosaur Jr frontman’s status as an axe wielder is legendary. His riffs are gargantuan, his solos held in high esteem by fans of the milieu, even if his inclination is more acoustic driven these days.

Mascis strolls onto the Whelan’s stage, trademark baseball cap atop his head and cup in hand, and sits beside his guitars. After a muttered “Hello” for introduction, it’s straight into a no-messing-around feast of bright acoustic picking and riffing, interspersed with such grunge-y distortion and contrasting abrasion that you feel Mascis will never quite leave the hardcore of his Deep Wound days behind.

These startling bursts of noise spring forth primarily from Dinosaur Jr’s Little Fury Things early in the set, as Mascis without warning transforms his acoustic into something else entirely and a room full of guitar worshippers simultaneously cream their undercrackers. Ammaring, a number from his project with The Fog, is similarly carved up, punctuated by heavy, metallic solos that give way to sudden clarity in the verses.

Things take a folkier slant with Drifter from his recent ‘Tied To A Star’ record, albeit with a percussive feel as Mascis hammers the strings, while another new track, Heal The Star, begins as a blues-y instrumental before Mascis takes it in another direction entirely, becoming a clanging Eastern-tinged opus. A selection from Dinosaur Jr’s ‘Where You Been’ peppers the set – fuzzed guitar cuts through the sweet verses of Get Me, while Mascis’ falsetto brings everyone back to the early ‘90s on Not The Same, and Out There is simply a fret-slamming joy to hear.

By the time Alone comes along at the set’s end the wall of guitar noise has increased in height and volume. The song is disassembled into an elongated solo, with Mascis’ head bowed onstage and all eyes on the neck of his guitar. The most affecting moment of the set comes not from his famed mastery of the guitar, though, but from a gorgeous rendition of Mazzy Star’s Fade Into You, as if Mascis’ deference to the track prevents him from giving it anything but the performance it warrants.

If Mascis seems nonplussed by it all it’s because Mascis generally seems nonplussed about anything. Between song chatter is non-existent, the only sound the occasional half-hearted request shouted over the tuning of strings; half-hearted because it’s all good really, you don’t come to a gig like this for banter or a greatest hits selection, but to hear a guy put a guitar through its paces.

The Cure’s Just Like Heaven is the sole encore, one the crowd lend their voices to. It’s a more low-key denouement than expected given the squalls of earlier. Maybe Mascis is softening in his middle age. Somehow, we doubt it.