Sounds Local: Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr. takes to Root Cellar stage

  • Greenfield resident Lou Barlow, who is known as bassist for the alternative rock band Dinosaur Jr. and leader of the lo-fi band Sebadoh, is playing a rare hometown show at The Root Cellar on Saturday. Contributed photo/Rachel Enneking

  • Greenfield resident Lou Barlow spent most of 2018 touring the U.S., playing small solo shows, and is coming back to town for a performance at The Root Cellar on Saturday. Contributed photo/Rachel Enneking

  • HUNTER

For the Recorder
Published: 12/19/2018 3:05:53 PM

Lou Barlow has grown accustomed to intimate shows this year, having just returned from a tour in California where he played in backyards, living rooms, art galleries and other small spaces.

This wouldn’t be that unusual for musicians in many genres, except that as the bassist for alt-rock giant Dinosaur Jr. and the leader of the lo-fi band Sebadoh, Barlow is more associated with loud, sludgy rock than with intimate acoustic shows.

Yet, Barlow, who resides in Greenfield with his wife and children, spent most of 2018 touring the U.S. playing small solo shows. He will play a rare hometown show at The Root Cellar, 10 Fiske Ave. in Greenfield, on Saturday at 8 p.m. Opening the show will be Scott Helland and the Dredd Foole & Jen Gelineau Duo.

For those unacquainted with Barlow, his musical career began in 1982 when he was in high school, and he and Amherst-based guitarist J Mascis formed the hardcore band Deep Wound. A year later, they recruited drummer Emmett Patrick Murphy (Murph) and formed Dinosaur Jr. The band became known for its mix of melody and noise, and achieved great success and fame as pioneers in the genre that would become alternative rock. They are easily one of the most, if not the most, successful band to ever come out of the Pioneer Valley.

Tensions between Barlow and Mascis led to Barlow being kicked out of the band in 1989. He quickly formed Sebadoh, another groundbreaking group, this time in the lo-fi indie rock genre. He also started Folk Implosion, whose song “Natural One” landed on the Billboard music charts.

He and Mascis patched up their differences in 2005, and Barlow rejoined Dinosaur Jr., which has been touring the world and steadily recording ever since. He also continues working with Sebadoh and maintains a solo career.

As Barlow had limited band commitments this year, he took to the road for a series of about 80 solo shows that were similar to the kind of shows one associates with folk musicians, not indie rockers.

“I knew there had to be an alternative to playing the club scene,” Barlow explained. “As you get older, and your core audience gets older, people are parents and don’t generally go out at 11 p.m. to the local bar.”

As a father of three himself, he added, “I needed to find a way to play at a more reasonable hour, to people who still like my music, and I’m not really at the level to play theaters.”

The solution was playing alternative venues, including house concerts.

The tours were successful and Barlow enjoyed the opportunity they provided to connect with his core audience. Between the solo treks, Dinosaur Jr. did some touring in 2018, which meant shifting gears back to playing loud and electric. The band even opened for the Foo Fighters’ sold-out show at Fenway Park in July.

“It was cool to play Fenway, and the people that worked there treated us really well, which isn’t always the case at these big shows when you aren’t the headliner,” Barlow said. “When you are the opening act, all those people come in and stake out their spots so they can be as close to the real band as possible.

“I have a very vivid memory of Sebadoh opening for Firehose, (which was) very popular at the time,” Barlow continued. “This kid stood in front of the stage and yelled ‘Let the real band play’ throughout our set. We’ve also had stuff thrown at us when we were opening for Sonic Youth.”

Barlow has addressed his issues with anxiety in both interviews and through his music, so you would think playing to massive crowds would be terrifying. But the small shows are much more intense, he said.

“I remember once I wrote a song, and my girlfriend at the time asked me to play it and she sat about 3 feet from me, and it was the most nerve-wracking experience ever,” he recalled. “At big shows, the lights often obscure the crowd, but when you are literally 5 feet from a group of people, you are definitely more exposed.”

A venue like The Root Cellar is bigger than the rooms he has been playing, but it is still what he considers to be a comfortable room — and the best part is that it is close to home.

Barlow grew up in Westfield and moved to Greenfield about five years ago after spending 17 years in Los Angles, Calif. Family is primarily what brought him to Greenfield, he said; Barlow’s parents relocated to Greenfield in recent years and his sister also lives here.

“I was going through some big changes in my life and decided to come out here to be closer to family,” he said of the big move. “When my parents retired, they moved from Westfield, and my sister has been living here for about 15 years.”

“The funny thing is that Greenfield is the place where a lot of the original shows I played were held,” Barlow continued. “The Greenfield Grange was the place for lots of punk shows. Some of the coolest bands of the ’80s would play there. My kids go to the Center School and they recently had a variety show there. I saw my daughter play the same stage I played as a teenager.”

Barlow added that he’s very happy living in the Greenfield.

“I like where I live. I like being close to downtown and there’s an interesting mix of people who live here that have interesting back-stories that you wouldn’t guess,” he said. “Greenfield is kind of a classic western Massachusetts town.”

This show at The Root Cellar is his final one for 2018, and 2019 is already shaping up to be a busy year. Barlow will begin another solo tour in February, starting in the Southwest and ending in the Pacific Northwest. He’s also releasing a new album from Sebadoh in the spring, which the band just finished recording in Easthampton.

“It’s more of a political album, which is different than anything we have done,” Barlow said. “It’s not so much about heartbreak and relationships, it wasn’t anything we discussed. It was just what we brought to the table and the ones that worked the best seemed to be a little charged.”

But for now, he’s focused on The Root Cellar show, where he will alternate between playing his acoustic guitar and his ukulele, which he uses for unconventional tunes. Expect to hear material from both his bands and solo work.

“I’ll play a selection of things that I enjoyed playing on tour and I’ll see some friendly faces,” he said about the hometown show. “And then I get to head home!”

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at rootcellarbar.com. For more information, call 413-773-3290.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.


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