There are three things every indie fan can rely on: death, taxes, and Sonic Youth. Second only to David Bowie in relevance and longevity (and without any of The Thin White Duke’s self-reinventions), the seminal quartet has been releasing solid album after solid album, for more than a quarter-century. From New York City art-punk to 80’s hardcore to 90’s grunge to classical experimentation to their recent embrace by the neo-jam band community, Sonic Youth has traveled far and wide, while never breaking with their past. On February 16th, 2007, the band returned to New York, at the spacious concert venue/dance club Webster Hall (or, as guitarist/singer Thurston Moore called it, “The Ritz” – QRO venue review).
While Sonic Youth opened with “Candle” (off of the Library of Congress National Recording Registry-inductee, 1988’s Daydream Nation), almost two-thirds of the concert was made up of songs off their last studio album, last year’s Rather Ripped. It was their first record since the departure of John O’Rourke, their extra bassist from 2000-2005 (former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold has filled that slot on this tour), and it is more conventional, even more melodic than prior records. The concert was likewise more straightforward; even some of the older material they played was more structured and accessible, such as their 1994 MTV hit, “Bull in the Heather”, and Daydream Nation’s “Silver Rocket”.
This isn’t to say that they weren’t good – in fact, the concert was fitting for the more rock-oriented audience: both “Bull” and “Rocket” were immediate crowd favorites, and while “Candle” wasn’t the strongest opener, the audience was really galvanized by the following “Reena” and “Incinerate”. The more forceful pieces off of Ripped, such as those two, “What a Waste”, and “Rats”, gelled well with Ripped’s more melodic pieces, like “Do You Believe in Rapture?” and “Turquoise Boy”. The first-set ending “Or”, in particular, surpassed what it sounded like on the album.
This also isn’t to say that Sonic Youth completely neglected their experimental, noise-rock heritage, though it was limited to their performances of earlier work. Guitarist/singer Lee Ranaldo’s engagingly “Skip Tracer” goes into distorted feedback on 1995’s Washing Machine, and they did so with the song live as well, though it was only a couple minutes of a fairly odd mix of feedback and unrecognizable recorded music. Far better was “Expressway to Yr Skull” (off of 1986’s EVOL), whose over-ten minute wall of experimental noise concluded the show, with every axe, swinging in body, crashing in sound.
Ranaldo’s conversational “Tracer” was also a part of Sonic Youth’s charm offensive. Guitarist/bassist/singer Kim Gordon was at her Deborah Harry-iest on nearly all her songs, like “Bull”, “Waste”, “Turquoise”, and 1983’s Confusion Is Sex’s “Shaking Hell”. Moore has a stage presence as the ‘absent-minded musician’, presenting confusion over set lists and Mark Ibold’s name (in an almost Alzheimer’s-like moment, Moore first called him ‘Mark Arm’, the name of the lead singer of Mudhoney, with whom Sonic Youth split the “Touch Me, I’m Sick” single – way back in 1989). It may fly clear in the face of Moore’s ability, intelligence, and attention to detail, but that doesn’t make it any less endearing. And the band’s banter over their respective home regions before “Expressway” – with Moore giving various hints as to Ranaldo’s Manhattan address – was particularly appealing.
By all rights, Sonic Youth shouldn’t be around anymore. They were founded on the same early-eighties Manhattan streets as such later-to-be-disbanded acts as The Talking Heads and Blondie. They were once on SST, the label of such later-broken-up eighties punk bands as Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, and Dinosaur Jr. They were a major part of the only short-lived grunge movement in the early nineties (Nirvana was once their opening act). They’ve released side projects with avant-garde composers, in foreign languages. The band even has the clearest indicator of all of impending dissolution – a pair of married bandmates, in Gordon and Moore. Yet they’re still here, they still rock, they still matter – and they still put on a great show.