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This show was a long time coming for me. Although I’ve been a fan of Superchunk since hearing the “Mower” single in the early ’90s, for whatever reason I’d never seen them live. It was also their first Philadelphia show since the tour for 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up, the last full-length record they released before the recently released, absolutely excellent Majesty Shredding. Appropriately enough, Jenny Lewis‘ band Rilo Kiley opened up for them at that show and Lewis would do so again, this time with her new project Jenny and Johnny. More on them later, though.
To say that Superchunk is a great live band may be the understatement of this young century. They put on such a wonderful show that I can’t think of a better one that I’ve seen all year except for The Joy Formidable at KungFu Necktie or various performances at the Big Takeover’s 30th anniversary festival (particularly The Avengers and Mark Burgess). The energy level didn’t lack in the slightest as singer/guitarist Mac McCaughan and bassist Laura Balance bounced around all night, acting like they were jumping on imaginary trampolines. Yet, it never felt forced. If anything, this sort of boundless enthusiasm is hard to come by in indie rock these days, as if showing too much enjoyment is somehow uncool, so this was a particularly pleasant sight to see. To me, Superchunk represent the absolute best aspects of American indie rock. Their reason for making music seems to be for the pure joy of it and it’s amazing that Merge Records, the label that McCaughan and Balance started in the late ’80s, is as successful as it is now given that their love of music seems to inform the kinds of bands that are on the label as well.
The visual aspect of the show wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if they didn’t sound astonishingly like the band that released 1993’s On the Mouth and 1994’s Foolish, two albums that they drew from the most alongside the more recent Majesty Shredding material. Indeed, they opened with Foolish‘s “Kicked In” and aside from that album’s opener “Like a Fool”, Come Pick Me Up‘s “Hello Hawk” and Majesty Shredding‘s “Fractures in Plastic”, which featured a guest cellist, the intensity level didn’t let up for a second during the hour and a half long set. The songs that gained the strongest audience reaction were the amazing “Hyper Enough” (from 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In) and of course, perennial encore and still probably the best known Superchunk song “Slack Motherfucker” along with the show closer, a roaring version of “Precision Auto”.
However, it’s important to note that material on Majesty Shredding, particularly “My Gap Feels Weird,” “Digging for Something” and “Crossed Wires”, stands up next to anything in their catalog and also held its own with the more familiar, older material played on this evening. There were no beer or bathroom breaks for these songs, in other words. They even played a B-side (“On the Mouth”), which they dedicated to yours truly. At that point Mac could’ve sung the phone book and I still would’ve been a happy camper.
As mentioned earlier, openers Jenny & Johnny are comprised of Jenny Lewis and her musical and romantic partner Johnathan Rice. Their new album, I’m Having Fun Now, is fun, upbeat power pop set to dark lyrics ruminating on relationships and social issues (such as the single and catchiest song on the album “Big Wave”, which deals with the current financial crisis) and most of their set stuck to the album and was fun and enjoyable. The biggest applause, however, came for “The Next Messiah”, a song from Lewis’ 2008 solo album Acid Tongue and as that song ended their set, many of her young fans left and the mostly older Superchunk fans came in, meaning that there was definitely a divide in the audience’s preference on this evening. What’s funny about this scenario is that the last time I saw McCaughan and Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur play live was with their side project Portastatic back in 2005. They opened for the aforementioned Rilo Kiley and proceeded to blow them off the stage. Tonight, they did the same thing, though as they were headliners, it was a less unexpected scenario.
This excellent triple bill started with Versus, a band I’ve loved since the early ’90s but whose newer, more orchestral pop flavored material doesn’t really cater to their strengths in my opinion. Both of us thought that their set, while good, lacked something. They only got half an hour to play and honestly, I wish they had more time, but with the limited time they had, I wish that they would’ve added a few more older songs in addition to material from the new On the Ones and Threes.
Superchunk’s setlist can be found here.
Jenny and Johnny’s setlist can be found here.
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