Sonic Youth: Not to be taken for granted
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Sonic Youth might be a little under appreciated these days. It’s easy to gloss over them a bit, since they’re just always there. They are ripe to be taken for granted; they always make good (typically great) records, they’re always touring and their members are involved in myriad outside projects. Thurston Moore alone seems to be involved in every artistic endeavor involved with indie or rock culture; he’s become the conscience of the entire scene, a pillar of cool impossible to ignore. They’re practically omnipresent, so suitably, every time they’ve been in my neighborhood, I’ve been sure to get a ticket. And, of course, every time I walk out of the club or theatre, I say to myself, “my God, that’s the greatest band in the world.”
Over two nights in Boston at the Wilbur Theatre, a recently re-opened venue that specializes in comedy but actually seems to feature fantastic acoustics, Sonic Youth came in, kicked ass, said thank you, and reminded everyone that yes, they’re still that fantastic.
As is their tradition, most of their set drew from their new album, The Eternal, a dedication to their current art that many bands in rock, old and new, don’t seem to display. Each night, they played 17 songs, and each night, 11 came from that record. They almost operate in a jazz mentality, looking to expand and explore their sound rather than rehash a greatest hits set. That said, every song played that wasn’t released this year didn’t date beyond 1988, though even those songs were rendered with more power and brute force than their vinyl companions.
Luckily for the paying attendees, The Eternal happens to be a fantastic record, with lots of room to stretch out the songs into cacophonous moments of feedback and walls of sound. “Anti-Orgasm,” with it’s stop-start cap to each verse and its throbbing tempo, is packed with pent-up aggression and displays a sound to match. “Calming the Snake” is the most combative song Kim Gordon has fronted in years. And Lee Ranaldo’s two songs from these shows, “Walkin Blue” and “What We Know,” are fantastic poetic freakouts with several left turns and beautiful moments, where three guitar lines work together to create a woven bed; useless alone, incredibly powerful together.
“Massage the History,” featuring Moore making a rare appearance on an acoustic guitar, capped the main set each evening, and it’s just the latest epic poem in Sonic Youth’s chronology. Slow, burning build, capping to a momentary freak out, coming back down, gliding peacefully to the ground. It’s not just about noise and static, it’s about creating sonic collages of sound and collecting them into artistic, beautiful songs. It’s what separates them from their more-experimental peers who work purely in that medium of noise. Since 1985 or so, they’ve worked to incorporate the avant-garde into the template of the album and the song.
However, when it does come to making noise, these guys can’t be stopped. Moore, constantly defying age and reason, was a maniac, bouncing off his amps and monitors, crawling along the front of the stage, sacrificing the frets of his guitar to the front five rows. At the conclusion of a frenzied “White Kross” the second night, he stood atop his rig at the front of the stage, closed his eyes, and just fell forward to be caught by the accepting masses (almost hitting me with his headstock in the process, but that’s totally cool). He surfed, motionless, for a minute, with the crowd pushed his 6‘6” frame forward, back, left and right, until finally depositing him back on the stage. This guy is 51 years old. He looks 30, maybe. He has the energy of 15.
But to get into that is to just acknowledge the age-defying properties of the band. Save for Ranaldo’s white hair, there’s no sign that this is a band that’s been together since 1981, whose members are mostly eligible for AARP benefits. Their dedication to new material and their boundless enthusiasm belie their age, but their years together has made them drum-tight. They can change directions in full flight and stop on a dime. The main four of Moore, Ranaldo, Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley operate on a telepathic plane, and bassist Mark Ibold looks completely comfortable now, where in 2006 he looked as if he was just trying not to step on anyone’s toes. He doesn’t have to worry about that now. He’s a fully operational cog in the well-oiled machine. Battle tested and fearless, they have no fear of reaching too far, always knowing that wherever they take the music, they can reel it back into the sphere.
The highlight of all highlights came at the close of the first night’s second encore. Some quick shredding, the pounding strings, an unholy scream from Moore, and then that darting surf riff to announce “Death Valley ’69.” For five minutes, it was that complete, controlled mayhem that has become their calling card. Their ability to control the wildest sounds and reign them into to a caustic bomb of sound, every move both an accident and completely planned. And that lyric, of death and desperate descent, slowly building until it explodes in a moment of pure mayhem and bliss.
Yes, I always forget what I’m in for.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org
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