Thanks to mega-expensive tours, we’ve come to think of reunited groups as nothing but business units. But occasionally, regrouping leads to a sustained creative second wind.
It’s easy to be cynical about reunion tours, given that their two primary motivating factors—money and nostalgia—seem antithetical to the creation and advancement of art. And, of course, memories don’t come cheap: The inflated financial guarantees required to lure a group of musicians who hate each other’s guts out of retirement to recreate the soundtrack of your youth inevitably come out of your pocket. After all, it was a reunion—The Eagles’ 1994 Hell Freezes Over tour—that first pushed concert-ticket prices past the triple-digit mark, paving the way for the $500 VIP packages that are commonplace today.
At least when the groundbreaking alternative-rock acts of the ’80s and ’90s started reforming last decade, their efforts seemed more altruistic. Seeing the Pixies graduate from the 1,000-capacity Masonic Temple (where they played in 1991) to two sold-out nights at the 9,000-capacity Arrow Hall in 2004 represented more than just a time-machine trip back to college: After a 13-year absence, that tour gave Frank Black and Co. a taste of the mass popularity they deserved but didn’t achieve during their first go-round—and helped quantify the massive influence they had on the bands that followed in their wake. But even that goodwill has been pissed away as the Pixies now embark on tour after tour without releasing new records.
And just as the Pixies laid the foundation for alt-rock’s ascendancy in the ’80s and ’90s, so too have they for its afterlife on the reunion circuit, where college-radio peers like Pavement, the Stone Roses, and the Jesus and Mary Chain have gotten back together with no intention of expanding their discographies. While there’s something to be said for a great band not wanting to sully their track record with a crap new album that’s destined to clog used-CD store bins for all eternity, the lack of new material reinforces the sad realization that none of us are getting any younger. During the JAMC’s Aug. 3 show at the Phoenix, I kept bumping into old friends with whom I used to frequent Davy Love’s late-’90s Blow Up parties at the El Mo, and it became clear that these sorts of concerts have become the 21st-century version of a high-school reunion for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at an actual one.
However, this month sees two new releases by indie-rock veterans who’ve parlayed retrospective reunions into sustained second winds. One of the most electrifying live acts of the 1990s, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion returned to the stage in 2010 after a protracted layoff, to promote reissues of their back catalogue. But true to the band’s original mission—to liberate the blues from Claptonian supper-club slickness and reconnect the music with its primal roots—frontman Spencer wasn’t content to see the Blues Explosion exist merely as a museum piece. His band’s new record, Meat and Bone, is a raucously insolent effort that erases memories of the band’s lacklustre early-2000s releases, and reasserts the Blues Explosion’s singular, irreverent spirit at a time when successors like Jack White and the Black Keys are settling into a classic-rock comfort zone.
But arguably the most surprising comeback story belongs to Dinosaur Jr.
Like the Blues Explosion, Dino’s original ’80s-era lineup reformed in 2005 to peddle a reissue series, but the fact that they’re about to release their third quality post-reunion album, I Bet on Sky, suggests that the success of a reunion may actually be directly proportionate to the degree of animosity that lead to the original split. This was, after all a band whose infamous internal acrimony inspired indie rock’s first ever diss track, “The Freed Pig,” a venomous screed written by bassist Lou Barlow after falling out with Dinosaur Jr.’s reticent bandleader J. Mascis. What’s more, I Bet on Sky’s surprisingly lustrous sound—the band’s patented grungy roar tempered by synths, piano, and acoustic guitars—suggests that this is a band that’s still evolving nearly 30 years after it originally formed.
From The Eagles to the Pixies, we’ve come to think of reunited groups as business units, constantly trying to extract additional value from a well-worn heritage brand. But the case of Dinosaur Jr. offers a decidedly different, more human rationalization: Sometimes, people just get along way better in their mellowed-out 40s than they did in their miserable 20s.
Dinosaur Jr. plays Lee’s Palace Sept. 24-26. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays the Horseshoe Tavern Oct. 18. I Bet on Sky and Meat and Bone are out this week.