Lee Wall, Dean Wareham, and Sean Eden of Luna (from left). Photo by Jason Green.
It’s always fun to be pleasantly surprised by a concert setlist, but there’s something to be said for going in knowing what to expect. The ever-burgeoning ‘90s nostalgia trade has seen countless bands cash in with tours playing their biggest albums in sequence to much bigger crowds of thirty- and fortysomethings than they might see if they were just out supporting their latest album.
The setlist, or at least the bulk of it, was not the surprising part of Luna’s recent stop through St. Louis, where the band played through their breakthrough album, 1995’s Penthouse, in its entirety. (As I mentioned in my preview of the show, some other cities were treated to one of their two prior albums, 1992’s Lunapark and 1994’s Bewitched.) No, the surprise was the average age of the crowd. There were plenty of the expected thirty- and fortysomethings, to be sure, but there were also an impressive amount of families, parents who discovered Luna in their college days and brought along their own college-aged kids, whose hooting and dancing made clear they had been properly educated in the ways of Dean Wareham’s dreampop quartet. Considering the vintage of the band and the fifteen years since their last proper album (cover albums and instrumentals notwithstanding), it was heartening to see.
“So we’re playing the Penthouse album,” frontman Wareham stated plainly two songs into the set. “In sequence!” guitarist Sean Eden added jokingly. And yes, that was what was promised and what was delivered. The band didn’t exactly reinvent the songs in a live setting, but they did frequently let them stretch out to include much more of what everyone came for, which is the inimitable ringing guitar solos that both Wareham and Eden are known for. (The songs stretched out enough that, though the setlist featured only 17 songs, it ran a full hundred minutes.)
Opener “Chinatown” set the tone with an extended intro, while “Sideshow by the Seashore” was a brash and noisy sea of guitar feedback aided by Off Broadway’s exactly-loud-enough sound mix for the evening. Wareham let us savor his reverb-soaked guitar on the intro to “Moon Palace” while Britta Phillips held down the low-end with a bass line that stopped and staggered around the fret board without ever losing the groove. Drummer Lee Wall held down a galloping beat for “Double Feature” as a framework for Wareham and Eden to trade off solos, some peppered in throughout the song as five-second palate cleansers, others epic in length and complexity. And then, of course, came “23 Minutes in Brussels,” a “hit” usually saved for a set closer or encore. It opened with Wall thundering away on his toms, then added in Phillips’ snaking bass line before the hypnotic guitars and Wareham’s mantra-like vocals eased in to create pure rock n’ roll bliss. Eden and Wareham again traded guitar solos for what was easily three or four minutes but felt like it could have gone on forever without complaint. (Though it should be noted that the noodling that ended the song might have stretched a bit too long, ending as it did on a squonk of a bad note, fortunately the only bum note struck all night.)
“That’s the end of side one,” Eden joked. “Now, turn the record over…” Penthouse, fortunately, is not a front-loaded LP, so on it went through the beautifully languorous “Lost in Space,” a summery, sped-up take on “Rhythm King,” and the brushed drums and sustain-powered guitars of “Kalamazoo.” The latter featured judicious use of a guitar slide, which Wareham then explained he learned (or “tried to”) from a VHS tape back in the 1980s. After a trio of mellow songs, “Hedgehog” offered some much-needed punked-up energy and an impressive bass solo run from Phillips. “Freakin’ and Peakin’” ended the album proper with a Lou Reed-ian shuffle that got faster and faster until it ended in a sea of crashing cymbals.
Even with the album-in-sequence setlist, “I still forgot what the next song was,” Eden joked. “That’s okay,” Wareham rejoindered, “because it’s a hidden track.” With that the band launched into said hidden track and their other “hit,” their cover of Serge Gainsbourg and Bridgitte Bardot’s classic French language duet “Bonnie and Clyde,” Wareham and Phillips’ vocals giving the song a sexy swagger.
Penthouse now out of the way, one might have expected the remainder of the set to be made up of Lunapark and Bewitched tracks destined for the setlists of future gigs, but surprisingly the band didn’t touch that material. First out of the gate was “Inside Your Heart,” a happily shuffling cover of a song by the Monochrome Set featured on Luna’s latest release, last month’s Postscripts EP. Then the band turned to post-Penthouse albums. 1997’s Pup Tent was represented with a pair of tracks, including the weird, skipping beat and surrealist lyrics of “IHOP,” while Eden took over lead vocals for “Still at Home” from the band’s 2004 farewell, Rendezvous. (Sadly, no love for personal favorite and perennial dark horse, 1999’s The Days of Our Nights.)
The encore opened with a most pleasant surprise: “Strange,” a song from Wareham’s hugely influential pre-Luna band, Galaxie 500. Then the night closed with a less rare but still welcome treat, a gorgeous, slow dance-worthy run through Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer” that made it a bit difficult to walk out into the chilly St. Louis October night.
Dayton, Ohio’s Lab Partners opened the show with a wall of guitar fuzz and bass you could feel in your bones, plus a drummer with completely wicked form whose hard-snapping wrist flicks and crazy fills thundered through the songs without him ever breaking a sweat. (I’d love to give him props by name but he is not a full-time band member so I’m not entirely sure who he is.) [Edit: Said drummer’s name is Kevin Vaughn, who was a former full-time member of Lab Partners and also a member of the Heartless Bastards. –JG] The band, now entering their third decade, hit the sweet spot between the abrasive fuzz of Sonic Youth and the dreamier shoegaze of My Bloody Valentine. Their set proved a captivating opener for every bit of its forty-minute runtime. | Jason Green
Sideshow by the Seashore
23 Minutes in Brussels
Lost in Space
Freakin’ and Peakin’
Bonnie and Clyde
Inside Your Heart (The Monochrome Set cover)
Tracy I Love You
Still at Home
Strange (Galaxie 500 “cover”)
Indian Summer (Beat Happening cover)