Thurston Moore delivered the rock in spades in the first show of his upcoming solo tour. An alt-icon thanks to his quarter-century of work in the seminal indie-punk band Sonic Youth, Moore has just released his first solo album in over ten years, Trees Outside the Academy (QRO review). And while Monday, September 24th was the first date of the new fall television season, and folks were lining up at video game stores for the midnight release of the new Halo III, the biggest premiere was inside Maxwell’s (QRO venue review), in Hoboken, NJ.
The packed crowd at the all-ages venue represented a wide range of years, from the ‘it’s a school night’ teenagers to balding, graying post-hippies, all shoulder-to-shoulder (and it was an old fella who ran up and grabbed what he thought was the set-list, which was actually song cheat sheets [see right]). Backing up Moore was violinist Samara Lubelski (who’d also worked on Trees), guitarist Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine), free-jazz bassist Matt Heyner (with his long black hair, he looked like something out of a metal band, and Moore introduced him to the crowd as “The Devil”), and Sonic Youth’s own Steve Shelley on drums (the last to be introduced, Moore simply stated, “And you guys know Steve” – to thunderous applause). Yet despite having half of Sonic Youth onstage (or 40%, depending on how you count Jim O’Rourke’s semi-replacement, former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold), Moore & co. didn’t play a single SY song. In fact, the audience seemed almost too excited – or too in awe/nervous – to ask for one (unlike when former Pavement singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus played at Maxwell’s in February – QRO live review).
And that wasn’t the only stark song choice that Moore made at Maxwell’s: from the beginning to the first encore break, he and his band played only material off of Trees, and after that, it was strictly material off his last solo record, 1995’s Psychic Hearts. They even opened up with the first two songs on Trees, “Frozen Gtr” and “The Shape Is In a Trance”. Not the strongest start on Trees, “Frozen” did pick up live, thanks to a weightier bass and general anticipation, but “The Shape Is In a Trance” was still a little too low-key. A similar fate befell the next two pieces on the set-list, “Silver>Blue” and “Off Work”: neither the greatest tracks on Trees, “Silver” gained serious power live, while “Work” droned on a bit.
But these four were just the lead-in to the heart of the set, which featured almost all of Trees’s highpoints. The upbeat “Fri/End” lifted the clouds of “Work”, and did a much better job at making people forget it was only the start of the workweek. The driving “Wonderful Witches” was the definite crowd favorite, rocking everyone and everything. “Never Day” actually brought out the light, with Lubelski’s best violin of the evening. Opener Christiana Carter joined the band onstage for “Honest James”, sharing the vocals like she did on Trees, making “James” the night’s most moving piece (even if she seemingly needed to have the lyrics written down for here [see left] – not a lot of memorizing going on there at Maxwell’s…). And instrumental “Trees Outside the Academy” closed out the eponymous record with force. The only thing missing was Trees’s recording of a young Moore making “some kind of sound-theatre”, “Thurston @ 13”…
With that came an encore break, but when everyone returned, they led the crowd back in time to 1995 and Psychic Hearts (which, to be fair, had a reissue last year). Psychic opener “Queen Bee and Her Pals” set the tone for the encore return, with its thumping, staccato rhythm laying down the law and laying out the crowd. Shelley messed up the start to “Feathers” (much to the crowd’s – and Moore’s – amusement), but there was nothing wrong with “Staring Statues”, as it brought back memories of classic early-nineties Sonic Youth – where many in the crowd probably first heard Moore (thanks to SY’s Nirvana/grunge-era-boost in popularity back then). The sometimes-confusing-on-Psychic “Patti Smith Math Scratch” was more of a straightforward rock song for the older fans in the crowd. Many of those fans left as the band began packing things up after “Patti”, but Moore and Shelley were unable to resist the requests for more, and just the two of them returned for a wonderful, forceful, exhilarating delivery of “Psychic Hearts” to finally close things out.
Thurston Moore playing “Queen Bee and Her Pals” live @ Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ:
Going to see Thurston Moore play and not hearing a Sonic Youth song may sound impossible, or at least impossible to be satisfied with, but just as Trees Outside the Academy can stand on its own two feet, so can Moore, live. Still the laid-back, slightly confused grown-up teenager he’s been for goodness-knows-how-long, Moore was friendly and engaging the diverse (though still mostly male) crowd. The first performance on his ‘Trees Outside the Academy Tour’ (next up is a sold-out performance at the Music Hall in Williamsburg), the night was both comfortingly classic and refreshingly new.