Around 9:30 Monday night at Disney Hall, toward the end of a round-table concert celebrating the music of Bob Mould, Foo Fighters' frontman Dave Grohl did what he does better than just about anyone in rock music today. He got behind a drum set and absolutely murdered a song.
The tune was Hüsker Dü's "New Day Rising," a punishing one-two punk gallop from 1985 with the title as a repeated mantra that everything will someday get better. It was probably the loudest thing ever played at Disney Hall, and Grohl's muppety ferociousness got the room to its feet.
Out in front, the man who wrote it stood graying and grinning, howling the lyric with the conviction of a prophet proved right. Mould, after 25 years in the trenches performing his melodic, bloodletting punk, finally got the retrospective he deserved at Disney Hall with "See a Little Light: A Celebration of the Music and Legacy of Bob Mould." The night was lovingly curated, totally contemporary in its choice of guests (despite last-minute cancelations by Ben Gibbard and Best Coast) and asserted the power of a songwriter with feelings so intense they required the urgency of punk.
2011 will go down as a pivotal year for Mould, who began his career in the early '80s fronting the Minneapolis-based trio Hüsker Dü and who continues today as a solo artist. He released a memoir, "See a Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody," that revealed the raw nerves that made his songs so ferocious but sensitive. It revealed his demons of substance abuse, his lifelong reckoning with his homosexuality, his insatiable mission to make albums as musical and as popular as the classic rock he and his fellow punks rebelled against.
Monday's show was a definitive statement that he succeeded. The range of guests showed three generations of artists (and to judge by the salt-and-pepper hair in the audience, of fans too) that borrowed his template to make music furious and reflective at once.
Spoon's Britt Daniel, in his takes on "The Act We Act" and "JC Auto" from Mould's successful second band, Sugar, highlighted the chemistry and musicianship that went into Mould's craft. Daniel's day job in Spoon is about watertight guitar licks and stylish open space, and while Mould's songs were noisy and volatile, they were also perfectionist performances, and its was easy to see where a teenage punk had things to learn from Mould even after exploring more minimal sounds.
Craig Finn and Tad Kubler of the Hold Steady and Lifter Puller were obvious descendants of Hüsker Dü's Twin Cities legacy, and not just geographically. Finn's verbose sing-speak style and Kubler's overdriven open chords each owed big debts to Mould, and their adoring takes on "Real World" and Sugar's "A Good Idea" illustrated how durable Mould's go-to sounds have proved over decades. Comedian Margaret Cho, a confessed punk nerd, joined songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips for an endearingly rough-and-tumble version of Sugar's "Your Favorite Thing," making clear that the band's legacy of devotion to craft and sharp edges extended to other fields.
The Smell lies a few blocks away from Disney Hall, and its flagship artist No Age gave the most up-to-date read of Mould's music (and featured the man himself on "I Apologize" and "In a Free Land"). No Age's trebly thrash put Hüsker Dü's roots on the famed South Bay-based SST label in focus. Mould revealed himself as an expert pop writer (and even as a very capable electronica artist in his Blowoff alias) in his later career, but Hüsker Dü were contemporaries of Black Flag and Circle Jerks, and No Age's barre-chord pummel asserted that kinship.
Alt-country singer-songwriter Ryan Adams stole the show, however, with the quietest set of the night. His devastating solo acoustic reads of Mould's "Heartbreak a Stranger" and "Black Sheets of Rain" stripped the arrangements bare and revealed the first-rate melodicist behind them. Adams' own recent, ruminative "Ashes & Fire" wouldn't initially seem to take much from Mould. But Adams is an outspoken punk historian, and it's easy to see his attraction to Mould the writer -- his versions cut to the quick of the deep wells of pain that made these records resonate.
Then Grohl and Mould took over (with Mould's great backing band, featuring Jon Wurster of Superchunk and Jason Narducy of Telekinesis). For a rowdy and gang-shouting trip through the decades. Hüsker Dü's swaggering "Something I Learned Today" and the plaintive "Hardly Getting Over It" were highlights, but even when Grohl left, Mould's genial gravitas carried "If I Can't Change Your Mind" and "Makes No Sense at All."
Just before parting, Mould mentioned future plans, including a tour of Sugar's "Copper Blue" and a vague hint that he'd like to reunite Hüsker Dü. But after the bring-em-all-back-out closer of "See a Little Light" (where No Age looked absolutely ecstatic to be harmonizing with Mould while Grohl gave them bro hugs), Mould stood onstage, alone in white light, clearly overcome by the standing ovation. For all the rage and melody that came before, the night ended with nothing but applause.
-- August Brown
Photo: Bob Mould. Credit: Noah Kalina.