A good friend of mine once remarked that, he could not believe I liked the music of Sonic Youth- “That stuff just hurts my ears”, he opined. The noisy dissonance and extended guitar workouts seemed (at least to him) entirely incongruous to the short, sharp pop that heavily infiltrated other corners of my record collection. His assessment seemingly informed by mere cursory listening and hasty judgment than anything else. To my mind it was as if we heard two different bands in Sonic Youth. Amidst that melodic chaos that “hurt” his ears a certain beauty existed for me, the likes of which I had truly never heard before. It would become some of the most important music of my life. Sonic Youth forced me to listen to music differently and opened a myriad of doors that extended far beyond music.
I first saw Sonic Youth perform at a small venue in Ann Arbor, Michigan over twenty years ago. The late night performance was mesmerizingly loud and forever cemented the group in my heart as a band that truly mattered to me. They were arty, mysterious, bewildering and beautiful. Sonic Youth defined a sound and completely original musical entity that would influence a generation of artists. The band’s overt musicality escaping the easy confines of compare; eventually establishing a huge creative legacy that would leave most bands green with envy.
Flash forward twenty three years later and the band continue to make relevant and challenging music that goes straight to my heart and mind. This time the dank nightclub replaced by the acoustically perfect Massey Hall in downtown Toronto. Expectations were noticeably high as a palpable buzz permeated the historic venue. After an interesting although brief set by the Ecstatic Peace-signed The Entrance Band, Sonic Youth took the stage at 9:05 pm. The band walked onto the same one that has hosted iconic music royalty through the years from Neil Young to the Stooges- (Both of which greatly informed the Sonic Youth sound.) Beginning with the murky and cacophonous “She Is Not Alone” (off the band’s first self-titled 1981 release) the band laid waste to some audience expectations immediately. This felt more like an event than a typical rock n’ roll show, just like it did so many years ago. The stage, adorned with large silhouetted lighting panels, mounted behind the band were used to great effect and would be frequently throughout the nearly two hour show. Thurston Moore quickly established control of a rapt and very energetic audience- assaulting the strings and fret board of his guitar with a drumstick until falling to the stage on the instrument by song’s end.
Catapulting us directly to the present, the band launched into the barely two minute single “Sacred Trickster” (from the Eternal) featuring a dancing Kim Gordon resplendent in a silver lame dress. This song would be the first of what would be (to some fans’ chagrin) a complete replay of the Eternal album. (Not without precedent the band is known to focus on newer material on their musical outings.) Fifth (touring) member, bassist Mark Ibold added extra rhythms to augment the band's sound.
Quite honestly I loved this show. After having lived with the record for nearly a month now I really love all of the songs that comprise it. Unlike a band say, like the Rolling Stones, Sonic Youth are not a greatest hits band and seldom tread on familiar musical path. It is one of their best qualities. Mind you Gordon did throw me for a loop when she announced a Neil Young cover would be played before launching into “Massage the History” a suitable homage perhaps to a man pivotal to their career success. (Thurston’s acoustic guitar, a subtle reminder of the man that once tapped them as show openers in the early nineties.) Just before that they played “Thunderclap (for Bobby Pyn)” their tribute to former Germs frontman Darby Crash. Not surprisingly it was older songs that comprised the two encores that really seemed to enliven the audience. For a band with a history like this one, nostalgia is all but inevitable, but this time it felt far from it. "Pacific Coast Highway" from the album Sister. Evol album-opener "Tom Violence" and "The Sprawl" from the band’s landmark album Daydream Nation were welcome encore selections and they could not have sounded better.
The show truly reached its inspired zenith with the opening notes of Lee Ranaldo’s guitar on “What We Know”, a perfect and mystifying song that bridges the old and the new, the obscurity and the obvious, the artistic and the pop side and the beauty and truth that comprises the very art that is Sonic Youth. This is one song that represents exactly what I love about this band and why I will always maintain a very certain level of excitement when another new album and tour are announced. Judging by the smiles on the faces in the crowd that night I wasn’t the only one more than satisfied by a band still reaching for greater creative heights.
The crowd euphoria continued when the band exploded into their classic "Death Valley ’69" (from Bad Moon Rising) to end the night as a final encore. Steve Shelley's propulsive persussion on this one was simply amazing. That selection could not have been more inspired. It functioned as both a much deserved nod to those fans that frequently called it out and likely acknowledgement to their own storied past. It was the only song I kind of missed from that concert I attended twenty years ago but on this night it sounded as beautiful and fresh and unlike anything else now. I have a funny feeling I’ll still be listening with the same fresh ears twenty years from now. With any luck Sonic Youth will be touring with a brand new record under their wing then too.
Massey Hall, June 30th, 2009
She Is Not Alone
Calming the Snake
Malibu Gas Station
Thunderclap/for Bobby Pyn
Massage the History
Pacific Coast Highway
What We Know
Death Valley 69