In the twenty-eight years since J. Mascis founded Dinosaur Jr, his stature as a musician has been firmly cemented in the history of grunge, punk and garage rock. Playing solo at the Toff in Town tonight, the venue promises an intimate atmosphere for Mascis to showcase the songs off his latest record, as well as some new takes on songs from his exhaustive discography.

Opening tonight is Brisbane-based singer-songwriter McKisko. Garnering high praise for her 2009 album Gloria, from the very first song she holds the audience in captive silence. Her arrangements are elegantly simple, yet hauntingly powerful. Accompanying herself on guitar for most of the set, her playing is beautifully understated, creating a sparseness in the music that complements McKisko’s fantastic voice. As the room slowly fills, each new member of the crowd falls into a hushed reverie, before greeting the end of each song with enthusiastic applause. Skilfully looping keyboard and glockenspiel on a later song, she shows a great diversity in her sound, calling to mind acts like Grand Salvo and Mountain Static.

Come time for J. Mascis it’s looking like a sold-out show at the Toff. The broad range and appeal of Mascis’ musical output makes for an eclectic crowd. With a collective cheer the curtains part to reveal Mascis, seated behind his songbook with a Gibson CF100 across his lap. Opening with a Dinosaur Jr. song, “Thumb”, Mascis pares it right back down from the band version with acoustic guitar and his husky, plaintive voice.

“Listen to Me” and “Several Shades of Why” are the first two songs from his new solo album, also called Several Shades of Why. It’s great to see the renditions of Dinosaur Jr. songs sound just as complete as those recorded as solo efforts. “Circle of Friends”, a cover of an Edie Brickell song, is followed by “Ocean in the Way”, off of Dinosaur Jr.’s most recent album.

Mascis’ guitar playing is predictably mind-blowing. His solos might not be surgically executed but his ability to improvise on the fly more than makes up for a handful of missteps, the natural warmth of his playing shining through. On “Ammaring”, the tone coming through his guitar once he turns on the distortion is bordering on apocalyptic, in the best possible way. Finishing off the song with a solo that leaves the audience cheering wildly, “The Wagon” follows “Flying Cloud”, before “Tarpit”, another Dinosaur Jr. number.

The set closes with “Alone”, Mascis’ guitar full of wistful melancholy and raw energy. Mascis may not be the most engaging stage presence when playing solo, but his pensive demeanour and heartsick lyrics, coupled with his astonishingly powerful guitar playing make him nonetheless a mesmerising performer. The audience cheers for more, and he comes back for “Quest”, the distortion pedal once again put to fantastic use. “Little Fury Things” closes the night with the audience singing along to the chorus, J Mascis finishing with a “Thank you, that’s it”.

– Shaun Thatcher