I was super excited about seeing one of my musical heroes, Grant Hart, for the first time ever, on a cold night (in a cold city, in a cold cold cold cold world). It was maybe not everything that I dreamed of, but was totally, well, interesting. I’m really glad I saw him; I’ve been kicking myself for the past year for missing him last time he was in town.
Hüsker Dü was actually the first underground/punk/indie band that I ever really got into. Towards the end of my high school years, while the ’90s alternative nation was still in pretty full swing, I started to read Spin and other magazines, and record reviews, and lists of the best alternative albums of all time. And there was this one article in particular in Guitar World from the summer of 1995 that had a history of the Minneapolis punk scene, leaving me really intrigued by Hüsker Dü. It was from this issue:
(I guess that issue is also the place I learned how to play Neil Young‘s “Old Man.”)
So thanks to things I was reading about music, Zen Arcade ended up being the first hardcore punk album I ever bought, and some other Hüsker Dü CDs were the first ones I ever ordered from a record label (SST!). And I still love them to this day, but I don’t need to really talk about them here, they get plenty of critical attention. I will just say that I think Grant Hart’s post-Hüsker Dü work has been a little underrated. I never listened to Nova Mob too much, but I really like all of his solo albums. They come out rarely enough that they are worth looking forward to, and they are consistently entertaining (unlike a certain overly-prolific, inconsistently brilliant ex-bandmate of his). I have been listening to the last Grant Hart album, 2009’s stellar Hot Wax, endlessly over and over for the past year.
Anyways, before the show at the Black Cat, Hart was doing a performance at Crooked Beat record store — kind of a “shake hands & play a few songs on guitar” sort of thing. I figured I should check it out, that I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t go. There ended up being a small crowd of 10 or so people, and he played 5 or 6 songs solo, including “The Main” and “I Knew All About You Since Then” and “Green Eyes.” He looked haggard and old. His guitar drifted out of tune and he hit some wrong chords. I wasn’t sure what to think. I had heard somewhere that his performances could be a little erratic, and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Here are some photos (via the City Paper) of the Crooked Beat set; you can spot me awkwardly applauding in a few.
In the time between that performance and the later show at the Black Cat, I found myself contemplating rock’s ragged pantheon of outsider geniuses: your Syd Barretts and Skip Spences and Roky Ericksons and Daniel Johnstons. Does Grant Hart belong in that company? Or is he maybe just kind of washed up? Would he pull out all the stops and live up the strong material from his albums?
I ended up with mixed feelings. If you went to his Black Cat show as a casual Hüsker Dü fan, you would probably have come away with the feeling that he was thoroughly broken down, barely coasting by on some great songs from a band that ended almost 25 years ago. If you were a more serious fanatic, it was easier to see flashes of brilliance throughout the night, and to appreciate and enjoy his whole body of work. But then fanatics are always biased. Overall I enjoyed the whole performance, but it left me a little weirded out at the same time.
The opening act was called The Venables, and they played a pretty straightforward set of rock and roll numbers. They were on tour with Hart and served as his backing band part of the time. I liked them fine, but wasn’t necessarily that into them. The guitar solos and stuff were kinda silly, but here and there they did some nice feedbacky stuff that made me happy.
Grant Hart then played a number of songs solo, with varying results — a few of the songs sounded great, though. Then The Venables came out to back him up, and the crowd perked up a bit, since it made the material a little stronger, and also because they played a bunch of Hüsker Dü songs. Then for an encore Hart played a few more solo songs before calling it a night.
While he often seemed like he was basically nuts, Hart was able to pull out some good quips and lines. When talking about an old song that he never recorded, he rambled on about how it could have been a huge hit and “Dave Grohl would be playing at my club.” On Tim Pawlenty: “I went to high school with that cocksucker.” And there were many stories about traveling and the dubious appeal of Dulles Airport.
As for the performance, I guess my main disappointment was that he didn’t do much of the newest album, and very little of it with the backing band to flesh out the arrangements. But a lot of the old stuff — solo and HD — was really fun to hear. Some of the old HD albums I haven’t listened to in ages, but I pretty much knew them by heart. It was funny to hear “Pink Turns to Blue,” since I once spent a long time learning how to play it on guitar, including the awesome guitar solo — and so I was like, “hey! that is not how the solo goes!” Also it felt weird to be a better guitarist than one of my musical influences, though I don’t really think of Grant Hart as a guitarist. He is a much better singer than me still, though, even after all his years of hard living, and an outstanding songwriter.
It was hard not to think that the music and the songs could be better served by a different kind of band, and a more serious approach to performing. But I guess that Grant Hart tried that a couple times before, and it just didn’t work out. Fair enough. I will go back and see him if he makes it back to town, and I hope he keeps writing new material. I don’t need to see a Hüsker Dü redux set, I’d just like to see him keep on keepin’ on.
Here’s a review from DC Rock Live, and here is a video I managed to track down: