Live Report: Sebadoh in New York

Irving Plaza, New York, Jan. 18, 1997

Three songs into the set, the stage darkened. A voice, bard-like in its sincerity, softly sang the name "Sebadoh." Seconds later the name was repeated, but this time by a wicked, demon-rock voice. An hilarious moment indeed -- though no one laughed -- and that pretty much sums up the band.

It was Saturday night at the sold-out Irving Plaza in New York City, and Lou Barlow, Jason Loewenstein and Bob Fay were poking fun at the very idea of Sebadoh as a big-time "rock group." For years the lo-fi dark horse, Sebadoh now finds itself alt. rock's Next Big Thing. "Natural One," Barlow's contribution to the "Kids" soundtrack with his side project Folk Implosion drew heavy radio play and "Harmacy," the most recent Sebadoh album, was released to acclaim. Onstage, the band seemed acutely aware of this predicament, and the show wreaked with its mixed emotions.

Occasionally a faintly sardonic voice would creep up during the recorded sound bytes and organ grinding that filled the gaps between songs, with labels for the band such as "the open-chord-tuning saviors of alternative rock n' roll." Better they announce it than some critic. Subverting any hint of rock & roll self-indulgence, Sebadoh's songs come in bursts. You get the melody, you get the message and then it stops. And they feigned frivolity by tuning-up and switching instruments and stage positions with each other at will (of course this really showcased their versatility -- all the better for a Next Big Thing).

Along with its image questions, there was also the band's folk-punk dichotomy by which to be entertained. Late in the show, when the voice intoned: "Introspection and fragile melody courtesy of Sebadoh," what it really meant was courtesy of Lou Barlow. Barlow's is the lilting of the two Sebadoh voices, his tuneful, hook-laden songwriting serving as fresh, if eccentric, breaths for the lovelorn. Bittersweet was the flavor on "Willing to Wait" and "Too Pure." Heartache, soul-searching -- it was all there.

Expressive and self-concerned (yet somehow never whining), he is able to articulate his thoughts without much use of cliche -- with the notable exception of "Cliche," on which he crooned with utter sincerity lines like "I didn't know what I had till it was gone." He displayed more of this well-honed glibness on "Soulmate" when he sang "I'll probably have to have sex with a lot of girls before my soulmate reveals herself to me."

And then there's Sebadoh's harder rockin' voice, Jeff Loewestein. He offered an energy-shifting delivery in the form of a Cobain scream, feedbacked songs that are driven by his bass and lyrics that -- when clear -- are anything but sentimental: "Stop wasting everything on someone else's pretty dream."