When 1990s indie-rockers Sebadoh announced their return from a 14-year hiatus — complete with a new LP, the upcoming “Defend Yourself” — the New England trio’s small but dedicated fanbase rejoiced.
Saturday night at Seattle’s Barboza club, however, singer-songwriters Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein and drummer Bob D’Amico appeared to still be re-acclimating to life on the road.
Sebadoh’s live shows, like their Sub Pop-issued records, are known for their unrehearsed informality. Setlists are written on the fly. The members trade instruments often, take long breaks between songs, and, yes, miss notes sometimes. Not only is this de rigueur for the band, it’s part of its charm, like hanging out with friends over a few beers in a musty jam room.
But there are limits to onstage imperfection, as the group discovered Saturday.
On paper, the cozy, 200-capacity Barboza, which was mostly full, seemed an ideal setting for Sebadoh’s intimate slacker-pop, yet the elements just weren’t on their side. A posted 10:15 p.m. curfew limited the band’s headlining set to one hour, a good 10 minutes of which was spent trying to solve a nagging bass pickup issue that, admittedly, the venue — given its sometimes murky acoustics — wasn’t helping.
They could have rolled with it or fixed it, no worse for wear, but instead, Barlow, Loewenstein and D’Amico labored their way through a half-dozen songs before finally seeking out a replacement bass from the opening band, San Diego psych-rockers OCTA#GRAPE.
Recovering, the co-frontmen — who each play guitar on the tracks they sing — made their first instrument switch, and Loewenstein’s fuzzed-out “Drama Mine,” off 1994’s seminal “Bakesale,” offered much-needed catharsis.
Still, throughout the night, the band just couldn’t seem to get comfortable, hamstrung by the short set time and faulty equipment, frequently resorting to self-deprecation to cope.
At its best, Sebadoh’s music occupies a fine middle ground between confessional folk-rock and confrontational hardcore punk. Live, though, Barlow’s songs — the more musically complex of the two — lacked definition, while Loewenstein’s, primal and intense on record, felt rushed.
As they tore through vintage material like “Careful” and “Rebound” (both off “Bakesale”) and “Beauty of the Ride” (from 1996’s “Harmacy”) with some frustration, the low lighting made it hard to tell whether Barlow — eyes hidden under his giant, unkempt mane — was genuinely upset or just aloof, but he appeared downcast by set’s end, pleading with the crowd to come back and see them again next time — never a desired stage signoff.
Luckily, Sebadoh’s two new releases — 2012’s “Secret” 10” EP, and “Defend Yourself” — give ample reasons to do that. Offering “Secret’s” ornery “My Drugs” and intricate, uptempo “Keep the Boy Alive” deep in the set Saturday, Loewenstein and Barlow came to life.
Sebadoh’s audience, having stuck around this long, certainly isn’t the type to hold technical problems against them. Surely, once they’ve shaken off the cobwebs, the band will return with confidence and clout — and well-soldered electrical connections.