Unwound Plays Surprise Show, Their First in 20 Years, on Oregon Coast
Reunited noise rock group preps for reunion tour, which begins February 3Music Features
Yoga is canceled tonight! See you next time!
That (paraphrased) message, written in black Sharpie on a piece of brightly-colored construction paper, was taped to the front door of the Astoria Arts and Movement Center, a space for dance practice and Zumba classes situated just off the main drag in the seaside town of Astoria, Oregon. The cancellation was, perhaps, not an unusual occurrence for a yoga class in a city with a population of just over 10,000 that, in spite of its hip boutiques, microbreweries and a gallery owned by Liz Harris, the ambient artist who performs as Grouper, still leans fairly conservative. But the reason for calling off that day’s get together was conspicuous.
The upstairs ballroom had been taken over this past Saturday for the first live performance in two decades by the noise rock group Unwound. The ensemble, led by singer / guitarist Justin Trosper and drummer Sara Lund, have recently reunited and are gearing up for a run of shows that takes them on a quick jaunt through the U.S. in February and March and the Primavera Festival in Spain this June.
Demand has been heavy for all these gigs, putting an understandable amount of pressure on the band to truly deliver on stage. So to shake off any remaining rust before the tour gets properly under way on the 3rd of February in Seattle, Unwound booked this warm up gig in Astoria, limited to 200 lucky ticket holders and a smattering of friends and loved ones.
Locals in attendance were few with the bulk of the audience taken up by fans who had traveled two hours or more to be there and some recognizable faces like Harris, Doug Martsch and Unwound’s first drummer Brandt Sandeno. The combination of familiar and unfamiliar faces lent an unusual air to the evening. When the quartet took the small stage to begin the first of two sets, the response was more awestruck than exultant. Few people seemed to believe it was actually happening until the set’s first wrenching heave began.
Some of the apprehension likely derived from the person who was absent from the reunion: Unwound’s original bassist Vern Rumsey. A member of the group since its earliest incarnation as Giant Henry, Rumsey passed away in 2020. Though no cause of death has been made officially known, he had spent many years struggling with alcoholism — a reality that came to a head when he attempted to rehearse for this reunion tour and was unable to play. Lund and Trosper, looking to promote the reissues of the group’s back catalog by Numero Group, opted to move forward without him, calling on ex-Karp bassist Jared Warren to take over instead.
Spiritually, Warren was the perfect choice. He has long been friends with Lund and Trosper, having come up in the same Olympia, Washington punk community and, with Karp, released music on the same label as Unwound, Kill Rock Stars. As well, Warren’s playing has a similar meaty authority as Rumsey’s did, with big, boxy notes cracking through the maelstrom of whomever he was sharing a stage with.
Still, the differences between the two were noticeable but not unwelcome. Warren, as Lund commented in an interview last year (“The way that [Vern] embodied his bass playing? No one can really actually copy that,” she told Pitchfork), has a much different physical presence with his large graying afro and bouncy stage presence. Rumsey also played with a fluidity that Warren doesn’t attempt to replicate. It gave these recognizable songs a tidier, crisper punch that left some open air that Trosper and touring guitarist Scott Seckington happily filled with feedback and gnarled guitar lines.
Please refrain from posting videos on social media from tonight’s show. Let’s keep it 90’s style!
This message was printed up and posted throughout the AAMC. A smart ploy by Unwound to keep the attendees more present and locked into the moment of this rare gig. And to ensure that if their performances should fall apart at any point, documentary proof of the collapse wouldn’t be disseminated far and wide within moments.
Not having to squint through a sea of smartphone screens to see the band certainly made for a more enjoyable experience, even if some folks did capture some clips of certain songs. As for their playing, there was little in the way of trouble over the two sets. A couple of small hiccups that were quickly corrected and brushed past. Otherwise, the four musicians were locked in. Warren and Lund shared the occasional grin and eye lock of support as they barged ahead. Trosper and Seckington kept their eyes mostly pointed at their instruments, boiling like two active volcanoes on either side of the stage.
Something about the other part of that sign — keeping it ’90s style — rattled in my head like a ball bearing. The night certainly felt like a throwback to the days when Unwound would play off the grid venues to ensure that they could keep their shows all ages. And outside of some small children hanging about, the audience was made up of folks who likely saw the band play during their initial run.
Everything else, though, felt rooted in the now. That was unavoidable. Every member of Unwound is pushing 50 and both Trosper and Seckington were sporting visible comb overs. But it’s the relationship that the four members of the group were having with the music that was most apparent.
Where Lund’s eyes were once wide open to what was happening around her as she played, she kept her eyes mostly shut, a beatific smile on her face. Zen and subtly powerful. In the years since the band split, Trosper’s voice has gained lean muscle and endurance. A sometimes reedy assault has turned bulky and durable. Flickers of pop dynamics are now wedged in his guitar strings like a screwdriver. The nihilism and fury in Trosper’s lyrics have evolved from righteous indignation into exhausted fatalism. His visions of “the end of the end,” as he sang in The Future of What’s “Swan,” a highlight of Saturday’s show, feel prescient.
Let the music free your soul!
This message was on a printed ad for the AAMC’s twice-weekly Zumba classes that, when I saw it, was taped up inside a bathroom stall. By that point, the show had ended and Unwound had vacated the stage, though their guitars were still feeding back loudly.
Did Trosper and Lund feel something within their spirits get disentangled as they made their first collective steps forward as bandmates but without Rumsey? Seeing Lund’s grin at the end and hearing what I thought was the loud laughter of Trosper in the backstage area near the bathroom certainly makes it appear as though something has been lifted from their slender shoulders that will allow them to move through what may be the band’s final chapter with ease and excitement.