Sonic Youth is forever Eternal. Rounding out three decades together now, no band in alternative music has been as substantive and long-lived. They’ve gone from the early eighties NYC early punk to SST mid-eighties punk rock to the grunge heyday of the early nineties to late nineties experimentation to adding a member, Jim O’Rourke, for the first half of this decade (how many bands can add a member after twenty years?) to a return to earlier sounds with 2006’s Rather Ripped to today. This is the band that closed out McCarren Park Pool (QRO venue review) – even had a record inducted into the Library of Congress (1988’s seminal Daydream Nation – QRO deluxe edition review)!
The only problem with this is that it makes it extra-hard for them to surprise & impress. Fans of Sonic Youth rate their knowledge of and experience with the group in terms of length usually reserved for jam bands. Yes, “Silver Rocket” is a great song (QRO video), but how often can the band play that, or their other classics (admittedly, a long list)? How can there be something ‘new’ about a new Sonic Youth album, a new Sonic Youth show? The band answered that at United Palace Theatre (QRO venue review) in New York, NY on July 3rd, by mixing the very new with the very old.
A year-minus-a-day ago, Sonic Youth played River-to-River Festival’s Fourth of July show way downtown at Battery Park (QRO venue review), and drew from their entire songbook (QRO photos), while two years-minus-just-under-a-month ago at McCarren, the band played Daydream Nation, in its entirety, and encored with Rather Ripped material (QRO live review). A recording of the Battery Park show was included in the deluxe edition of their latest album (and first new one since Ripped), The Eternal (QRO review). However, it was not a promise, but rather a goodbye (at least for a little while): at United Palace Theatre, Sonic Youth stuck entirely to The Eternal (playing all tracks but one, “Thunderclap For Bobby Pyn”), with only pre-Daydream material augmenting it.
The set list was front-loaded with Eternal songs: all of the first four, eight of the first nine, ten of the first twelve. The night began like the record with “Sacred Trickster”, but it was the following “No Way” that really lit things off. The Eternal is a bit more even of a record, without the big break-through songs, but “No Way” is more & more making a case for itself as just that, with the right amount of expanse to its art-punk (reminiscent, live, of “Chapel Hill” from grunge-era classic Dirty). Sonic Youth kept going, with little between-song commentary, through most of Eternal, including “Poison Arrow” (less smooth live, more rough around the edges), “Anti-Orgasm” (“This song is a cry for help”, said singer/guitarist Thurston Moore), and “Antenna”, wherein Moore, thrashing like he always does (that huge mop-top of hair swinging on his too-tall frame), knocked over one of the big bright lights on the stage (later said, “Gotta nail that shit down – crazy glue…”).
“Antenna” marked just about the halfway point of the set list, and the rest of the night saw the band move more towards older material, starting with “(I Got a) Catholic Block” from 1987’s Sister (the most recent ‘old record’ on the night), a strong rocker that was one of the best non-Eternal pieces that evening. However, from there, Sonic Youth kind of started to slide until the encore. The following “Malibu Gas Station” certainly held up at United Palace, but it was followed by “Massage the History”, leaving back-to-back Eternal songs sung by singer/guitarist (and Moore’s wife) Kim Gordon – “Massage” was relatively boring in its over-jam, and when Moore pulls out an acoustic guitar (even though he plugs it in), it’s time to get a beer. It was neat that they went into the encore break with a song from Confusion Is Sex, one of their earliest records, but “The World Looks Red” couldn’t quite bring it all back up.
That job was left to the encore return – or rather, returns, as Sonic Youth did two (albeit both were pre-scheduled). Moore started it by inviting everyone at the seated United Palace Theatre to come up front, leading to a mass of fans, ringing the curved lip of the stage (and you could really see the age spread, from a shirtless, long-haired old fella to a young boy standing on the inset bench below the stage lip – at one point, Moore picked him up and hugged him). “What We Know” was the last Eternal track of the night, but then the band hit up Sister’s “Pacific Coast Highway”. Along with the final piece of the night, “Death Valley ‘69” (from 1985’s Bad Moon Rising), the two were sort of a ‘reward’ for long-time fans, as they rocked out the roads of SoCal (so loud that swear it knocked some paint chips off the old interior of United Palace, and into the hair of some fans). Bringing the crowd that close also let Moore, Gordon, and singer/guitarist Lee Renaldo do the high-5 run along the lip with fans, and let people actually see that unheralded Youth, drummer Steve Shelley – though neither he nor new bassist Mark Ibold did the high-5’s…
(Can we just take a second and reflect on how awesome it is that Mark Ibold, the bassist of the late, acclaimed Pavement – QRO deluxe edition review – is now a ‘full-fledged’ member of Sonic Youth?!? He started out as just their touring bassist after Rather Ripped, filling the role previously held by O’Rourke (Gordon had been the original bassist, before joining Lee & Moore on guitar in the nineties). He didn’t even appear on-stage with them at the Daydream Nation shows until the encore, when the Daydream was over. And now, just as Sonic Youth has moved from longtime major label Geffen to established indie imprint – and home of Pavement – Matador, Ibold joins Sonic Youth in full, making him a member of two of the most important alternative acts ever. Until Pavement percussionist Bob Nastanovich becomes the new drummer for R.E.M. (QRO album review), this is just about tops…)
Despite the band’s extensive discography, there were few shouted requests – people probably knew that the band, actually very organized & professional in their shows (just look at how many guitars Renaldo uses in a set…), had a set list and were sticking to it. One fan did shout, “Sonic Youth is back!”, which was a curious thing to yell (and, just to make it clear, the coolest thing to shout at one of their shows is “Ibold!”), since Sonic Youth haven’t gone anywhere, have been here, for almost thirty years now. Truly Eternal.