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Dinosaur Jr. plays sold-out Union Transfer with raucous energy, ferocious noise

At Dinosaur Jr. performance in Philly, J Mascis’ guitar was inevitably the star of the show.

Dinosaur Jr. (guitarist  J Mascis, on left, bassist Lou Barlow, on right and drummer Patrick Murphy or “Murph”) perform at Union Transfer in Phila., Pa. on Nov. 18, 2021.
Dinosaur Jr. (guitarist J Mascis, on left, bassist Lou Barlow, on right and drummer Patrick Murphy or “Murph”) perform at Union Transfer in Phila., Pa. on Nov. 18, 2021.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Dinosaur Jr. emerged from Amherst, Mass. in the mid-’80s with a sound that combined droning, angst-ridden vocals with corrosive guitar, presaging the grunge breakthrough to come. At a sold-out Union Transfer Thursday, front man J Mascis’ stark white mane and beard were the only indicators that nearly four decades have passed since then. Over the course of a 70-minute set, the band played with the raw, clamorous energy of a garage band — albeit with the volume of an arena rock act.

It doesn’t hurt that the trio is touring in support of one of the strongest albums of their career, Sweep It Into Space. That album was represented by a half-dozen songs, comprising a third of the set list and meshing perfectly alongside classics like “Start Choppin’” and “Feel the Pain.”

The band’s strength is all the more unlikely given the rocky road it’s traveled to this point. The original lineup — guitarist/vocalist Mascis, drummer Murph, and bassist/ vocalist Lou Barlow — had already fallen apart before Dinosaur Jr. found major label success in the ‘90s, and the band broke up, seemingly for good, in 1997. The founding members reunited in 2005, enjoying a far longer tenure than their original incarnation.

Aside from the new album, the majority of the set stemmed from before the split, with only “Been There All the Time” from the 2007 comeback album Beyond representing their more recent output. Three songs reached all the way back to their self-titled debut Dinosaur (released before legal hassles required them to append the “Jr.”), including opener “Bulbs of Passion,” crowd favorite “Mountain Man,” and closer “Forget the Swan.”

The latter two songs, as well as the jaunty “Garden” from Sweep It Into Space, turned vocal duties over to Barlow, also the leader of Sebadoh and The Folk Implosion. The bassist seized those opportunities to engage the crowd, telling the story of a 1976 visit to the Liberty Bell and visiting his grandparents in Devon, where some musically-hip vandal had scratched off the last letter on local signs to read Devo. “That’s when I knew something was up here,” he concluded.

Barlow’s chipper enthusiasm stood in bold contrast to the famously taciturn Mascis, whose stage banter was limited to a handful of indiscernible mumbles. He preferred to noodle on guitar for a few seconds to mark the time between one song and the next, seeming far more comfortable huddled against a semicircle of Marshall amps and ensconced in a squall of feedback and razor-sharp riffs.

Mascis’ guitar was inevitably the star of the show, at times drowning out his own voice, much as his ever-present ball cap kept his face in shadow. He summoned eardrum-piercing throughout the night, whether on the metal chugging of “I Met the Stones,” a scything solo on the anthemic “The Wagon” from 1991′s Green Mind, or jet engine howls on the explosive “Little Fury Things” — which, along with the band’s blunt cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” wrapped up a three-song encore with songs from the 1987 classic You’re Living All Over Me.