In the days leading up to indie rock band Sebadoh’s ’Sco performance Saturday, excitement among students and community members was palpable. After all, the beloved band has not, after all, played a show in the U.S. since June. However, come showtime, the ’Sco was sparsely populated and off-puttingly quiet, which did not bode well for Sebadoh’s set. Though the performance had its moments, a lack of engagement from both the crowd and the band was noticeable throughout. In fact, opener Amanda X — a younger, less established rock trio from Philadelphia — came off as far more vital and energetic than the headliner did.
Featuring Lou Barlow of alternative-rock institution Dinosaur Jr. as frontman, Sebadoh initially gained notoriety for its wide stylistic breadth, solid songwriting and raw sound. In the 30 years since the band formed in Northampton, MA, “lo-fi” has transformed from a somewhat insulting descriptor to a full-fledged indie rock substyle, and Sebadoh’s role in this development cannot be overstated. Given how popular indie rock has become at Oberlin in recent years, it is not surprising that hopes were high for a band that has played such a key role in the genre. But Sebadoh simply did not live up to the hype.
Throughout the performance, each member of the band looked like he wanted to be just about anywhere but on stage. Barlow’s static presence certainly did not do the band any favors, nor did bassist Jason Loewenstein’s tired on-stage banter. Sebadoh’s musical showing felt as forced as its stage presence. Early-career songs that are quite appealing in their recorded form, like the upwardtempo and catchy “Skull,” came off as boring in a live setting, and later cuts like “Weird” were just as uninteresting live as they are on record.
It was not entirely Sebadoh’s fault that its show was not an especially successful one. Certain factors outside of the band’s control got in the way of the performance. For one, sound quality throughout the night was less than impressive. Barlow’s guitar parts failed to cut through Loewenstein’s annoyingly loud and overly simplistic bass lines. This was unfortunate given how distinctive a guitarist Barlow is. With Barlow’s riffs nearly inaudible at times, the songs sounded formless. Barlow’s buried guitar parts also revealed just how undistinctive many of drummer Bob D’Amico’s rhythm parts are. On record, Sebadoh’s straightforward, no-frills rhythmic sensibilities add to its lo-fi charm, but in this particular setting, Barlow’s melodies and harmonies could not cover up D’Amico’s oftentimes sloppy playing and the show suffered for it.
An absence of energy among audience members contributed to Sebadoh’s lackluster showing as well. This may have been caused by the band’s decision not to play many songs from its earlier, more experimental and more critically acclaimed records, such as 1991’s Sebadoh III and 1989’s The Freed Man.
Most intriguing was that opener Amanda X played a set so markedly superior to Sebadoh’s. The fact that Amanda X is more than 25 years younger than Sebadoh felt completely irrelevant by the end of Amanda X’s performance. The band’s relative lack of experience actually aided it in the long run. While Sebadoh appeared jaded and noncommittal, Amanda X exuded enthusiasm throughout. The band performed songs like “Nothing Wild,” which is thick with gorgeous harmonies, and the hook-filled “Guatemala,” admirably. Of course, the guitar-centric style of music Amanda X plays probably would not exist without seminal bands like Sebadoh, but Amanda X simply worked within this style more successfully. After Sebadoh’s set, it was clear that Barlow, Loewenstein and D’Amico could have learned something from the preceding set.