Superchunk, Hammer No More the Fingers
Cat’s Cradle, Carrboro
Wednesday, April 15
I’ve been trying to remember the last time Superchunk played, you know, a normal hometown gig, and I’m drawing a blank: Last year, they gigged for Barack Obama outdoors under the warm spring sun and for Cy Rawls inside a sweaty Cat’s Cradle; previously, there was the show with then-labelmates Dinosaur Jr. in which both bands only pulled from their first three albums, a Tsunami benefit, an Alejandro Escovedo benefit and Merge’s 15th anniversary party almost exactly five years ago.* But when’s the last time the quartet—closing in on two decades of two lineups and two names—simply got up on stage and played a casual set for the locals? Last night, April 15, actually.
Before Superchunk even launched into slow-building, rangy opener “Tiny Bombs,” guitarist Jim Wilbur was apologizing for the way things would go: Hammer No More the Fingers—the young Durham trio often compared to Superchunk but, with real harmonies and songs that shift direction three or four times in as many minutes, generally more complex—had just impressed a slowly gathering crowd with a tight set that comes road-reheaesed. Superchunk, a sporadically gigging band for the better part of a decade, doesn’t have that anymore. Last night, then, was an admitted warm-up gig for the band’s set in California at the Coachella festival on Saturday, and Wilbur (and likely the rest of the band) anticipated that working the rust out might mean a few mishaps. He was sort of right: At one point, frontman Mac McCaughan pawed away at a tune’s opening chord and could only repeat it, as Wilbur—right hand in the air, much like a hitter holding off the pitcher from the batter’s box—tuned. After a few numbers, including the unreleased and hooky “Crossed Wires” (I’ve been humming it all day), drummer Jon Wurster smiled big, as if relieved the band made it through the previous four minutes mostly intact.
The apologies really weren’t necessary: The predominately local crowd (a few people drove from Pennsylvania and New Jersey for the rare stand-alone Superchunk gig) wasn’t looking to nitpick as much as they were ready to listen. Many stood with arms crossed, tapping feat and mouthing words to 17 cuts from one of the area’s deepest catalogs. A small but passionate pit developed down front, pushed into frenzy by cuts like “Cool” and “The Popular Music.” They cheered when McCaughan, dressed in a white Carolina Hurricanes T-shirt, scolded the New Jersey Devils and laughed when Wilbur riffed on Pete Seeger and Judee Sill.
Hell, the band was all right, too: The guitars of “Driveway to Driveway” moved in those familiar fits in the verses and arches in the chorus, and “The Question is How Fast” nailed every turn with sharp rhythm. Interspersing the old with the new, the obscure with the obvious, Superchunk covered all of its bases, dropping into the smolder of “Like a Fool” mid-set before crushing “Precision Auto” in the first encore and “Slack Motherfucker” in the unplanned second. And, as reported, this doesn’t look to be a victory lap for the band: Playing “Misfits and Mistakes” and “Learned to Surf,” both tunes from new EP Leaves in the Gutter, only seemed to ratchet the band’s consistent energy level higher, Laura Ballance pogo-ing more for both of those than a classic like “Tie a Rope to the Back of the Bus.”
It was the sort of set that suggested Superchunk didn’t needed a warm-up gig before heading to the weekend’s big show in California, even if they felt the need to apologize for bad things that never actually happened.