Sonic Youth steps up and shatters eardrums
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Sonic Youth live is exhausting. Exhilarating, don’t get me wrong, but it’s impossible not to leave physically and emotionally drained. There is no live band past or present (maybe Hendrix, though I can’t be sure) that play with as much unbridled chaos on stage, unleashing walls of guitars, drums, feedback and ear-piercing sound from a few amps and some terribly battered guitars. Walk in anxious, walk out blown away – literally. This the live Sonic experience.
But on April 9 in Providence, R.I., Sonic Youth threw the audience something of a curveball, albeit one they hadn’t planned on.
Before their turn, though, Black Helicopter took the stage. Playing a set of tight, tough rock songs with a penchant for noisy, feedback-driven instrumental bits, Black Helicopter did a more than admirable job of warming up the crowd. Armed with great stage presence, musicianship and a smart sense of humor, the audience took to the band pretty easily.
“We’re playing some new songs tonight, but, I dunno, they’re all new to you,” joked vocalist/guitarist Tim Shea.
Sonic followed a tidy 31 minutes later, with drummer Steve Shelley and guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore walking to their respective ends of the stage. Moore joked “where’s Kim?”, which was followed by bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon hopping out to her center-stage position. They launched into a tight, loud version of “Bull in the Heather,” but through it I had one thought in my head.
After “Bull,” Gordon joked that they had decided to have a “Sonic Youth Reunion,” a reference to the band’s four-piece status that lasted until noisemaker/composer/guitarist/bassist/legend Jim O’Rourke joined the band full-time in 2000. But O’Rourke, Gordon noted, was in the middle of a personal crisis and sadly couldn’t make it to the show. The band wished him well (as did most of the audience, if not vocally), and they took on a brave challenge: playing as a four-piece for the first time in about five years. O’Rourke has had such a strong influence over their work on NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Murray Street and the incredible Sonic Nurse that I was immediately skeptical of the band’s ability to fill in his sound through the set.
But I’m wrong a lot.
I shouldn’t have worried a second. While O’Rourke was obviously missed, the band pulled their energy together and delivered a blistering, deafening, intense performance, calling waves of feedback through biting riffs and pummeling drums.
The first big punch to the crowd’s collective stomach came during “Pattern Recognition.” Played without bass – “Pussy Galore style,” as Moore put it – the band spun the chords on fire and pummeled their poor amps. What followed was a wave of feedback and distortion that rumbled like a 747 and landed with all the subtlety of a Mack truck into a guardrail. They meant business – they had something to prove.
The band weren’t without their sense of humor though. Moore and Ranaldo took to knocking a beach ball back and forth to the front rows most of the night, with Moore adding some nifty little spin kicks off of the speaker rigs into the audience. There was a lot of joking between musicians between songs and guitar noodles meant for nothing. They’re great, but they like to have fun too, ya know.
It was back to work as soon they’d start up again, though. Ranaldo’s “Skip Tracer” featured some intense guitar work by Moore, while “Rain on Tin,” the highlight of Murray Street, was simply the fiercest version I’ve ever heard, in person, on bootleg or otherwise. The band simply thrashed the strings, sucking every last ounce of
aggression out of the tune before dropping it like a bad habit.
In short, the band was on fire – sparks were even flying off of Moore’s strings from time to time. “Paper Cup Exit” featured some intense jamming that abruptly came to a halt, stopping the crowd dead in their tracks. “Pacific Coast Highway,” absent of its trumpet because of Gordon’s need to fill in for O’Rourke on bass, was particularly biting, ending with another wave of distortion and chaos.
The encore pounded the sonic swarm further. Closing with a pair from the seminal 1986 album EVOL, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Expressway to yr Skull” saw the band scaling more heights, with a feedback coda that seemed to give the audience a sense of closure. The wailing distortion slowly faded into oblivion, and the band gave their
thanks and walked away.
There is no band touring today anywhere near as reckless, intense and powerful as Sonic Youth. The sixth sense they’ve developed between them is unmatched. Their manipulation – hell, it’s downright bullying – of sound is jaw-dropping. And what’s more, their ability to rise up in the face of adversity – missing a key member
of the band – was damn near inspiring.
To paraphrase Dead Heads, there is nothing like a Sonic Youth concert.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org