Luna at The Fillmore, by Patric Carver
Luna (photo: Patric Carver)

Friday night, Luna returned to the Bay Area with openers Big Search at the Fillmore.

Big Search played a strong set. Their sound has the romantic charm of the college rock of the first Gulf War era, without the ashtray-licking, flannel-clad timbre of grunge vocals. Their last song of the night had the plucky, mandolin-esque guitars of Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” but not the down-the-drain despair of Dave Pirner’s unique vocal stylings. It different without being too unfamiliar.

The same could be said for Luna’s set, in a way. Almost a year ago, Britta Phillips opened for Teenage Fanclub at Great American Music Hall. She was joined by Dean Wareham for set, and it felt very much like a secret menu version of Luna – the elements were all the same, but stacked in a different fashion. Wareham mostly took a backseat to Phillips at that show, but the sound was so much the same as their other collaborations. It was another rung on the Dean-and-Britta creative ladder.

Friday night’s show was Luna unscrambled, but it wasn’t the Luna of yesterday. Luna’s always been a reliable band in terms of producing work that isn’t offensive in the slightest. You can’t hate Luna. If Luna were piece of furniture, it would be a craftsman-built wooden chair: sturdy, solid, beautiful without being ornate, and comfortable without being cushy. Their stage setup was far simpler than most bands that draw a crowd to the Fillmore – there were no auxiliary guitars waiting in the wings of the stage for a dramatic change when Dean would pick up that special guitar for that certain song. They’re simple, and that’s got its charm.

In some ways, they seem to get better as time trucks by. They play like one organism. It’s impossible to fake that level of cohesiveness; their entanglement is evident and extreme. Wareham’s voice has changed over time but it hasn’t diminished in quality. It’s like he’s relaxing into his own voice at this point, much in the way that Willie Nelson’s voice has just become a more Nelson version of Nelson over the years. Their cover of the Cure’s “Fire in Cairo” showcased this perhaps better than any other song of the night.

Never one to be overshadowed, Phillips reminded everyone of the power of a great bassist. Her vocal harmonies complemented the taste of their overall sounds like honey drizzled upon apples — a collective sweetness coming in from very different angles. Still, the signs of age were upon her, and her sound was not the same. There’s a new honesty that wasn’t present in Phillip’s previous work, but like Wareham, there’s a youthfulness that’s missing.

Luna’s roots are reaching deeper, but with all this grounding comes a price. They don’t have as much of a shine. The patina on their finish is beginning to fade, and whereas there were still great moments — like the fantastic guitars in “Chinatown” and “Tracy, I Love You” — there was no point where pulses were raised for more than a moment. This might be the hallmark of maturity, or it could be the very first signs of settling down. For now, it’s not that Luna’s light has gone out, but that the strata of its spectrum has changed.