Sometime in 1993, a younger, leaner, less balding version of myself sits in a college dorm room in St. Andrews, Scotland. My head should be buried in work, but instead I’m listening to music and eating cut-price food. Possibly waxy cheese slices on white toast. The tapes I’m listening to have largely been copied or compiled by the friends I’ve made over the last few weeks, often featuring bands I know and love, sometimes surprising me with something new. Mostly it’s the same twangy Britpop guitars and Beatles/Who/Stones influenced melodies.
And then there’s Copper Blue.
Sugar’s Copper Blue – and, by extension, Bob Mould – wasn’t on my radar until that first year of college. I’d heard of Mould, and HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, but my head was too caught up in the burgeoning British alt-rock scene to bother delving any further. He was just another punked-up rocker in a long line of American punked-up rockers. But something about Copper Blue lit a spark in me, a combination of sharp guitar noise, eccentric subject matter (the Hoover Dam? losing someone to AIDS?), and Mould’s distinctive nasal whine. That, and the fact that it was a truly great rock record from start to finish.
Fast-forward nineteen years, and tonight sees me standing in a room full of similarly enthralled middle aged men as Mould and his new touring band plow through Copper Blue again, from start to glorious finish. It was hard to know what to expect from the Showbox at the Market show, billed as Copper Blue and Mould’s latest album, Silver Age, back-to-back. A lot of rock has passed under the bridge since 1993, and Mould’s band Sugar sometimes feels like nothing more than a footnote to the Nineties alt-rock scene. Plus he now looks like a cross between Phil Collins and my Dad – a look that isn’t known for its rock credibility.
On tape Copper Blue was always at the lighter, poppier end of the rock scale, but tonight on stage Mould attacks the vintage material like he just cut it yesterday, reverse-windmilling his way through track after track in a slowly-spreading pool of sweat. And it isn’t just his energy and enthusiasm that wows us either – there’s the guitar playing too, a dense, layered, shockingly graceful style that puts most riff-heavy punk rockers to shame. Maybe I was too young to realize it before, but Bob Mould is a great guitarist. Throw in his songwriting chops – and, yes, those unique vocals – and he becomes a great artist, period.
Of course, nothing stays exactly as it was. There’s a little meddling with the shifting tones of Copper Blue – ‘The Slim’ feels slower, while ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ turns into an amped-up guitar romp – but the fans aren’t disappointed. This is a classic album, and a classic performance. Mould seems to know it too, grinning from start to finish as if he’s just rediscovering an old love. We aren’t the only ones enjoying the nostalgia trip.
As for the new material, Silver Age purposefully picks up where Copper Blue left off, weaving pop tunes with fuzzy rock chords and showcasing Mould’s undeniable talent. If the crowd feels a little subdued, and the lines at the bar become a little longer, it’s only because we’ve already had one of the most unexpectedly thrilling musical experiences in recent memory. The Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame should take note – Bob Mould may be widely underrated, but he isn’t out for the count yet. Start penciling in his name for the next round of inductions, please.