[For more exclusive photographs of this show, see Timothy Norris' slideshow “Pavement, Sonic Youth, No Age @ Hollywood Bowl”]
Do the gods of programming have a sense of humor? Because Thursday night, three massive shows split the already slender aging art-rock demographic with almost surgical precision, with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion pulling in the post-alcoholic noisefuck fiends, and John Cale's reprisal of Paris 1919, an album whose biggest original adherents are mostly grandparents by now, drawing an audience comprised mostly of that guy down the hall freshman year who wouldn't stop playing Neu! no matter how many times you punched him in the face. It was a grand night to be alive.
The biggest show of the evening was probably the Hollywood Bowl pairing of Sonic Youth and the briefly reunited Pavement, a band that stopped touring a dozen years ago so that its leader Stephen Malkmus could devote more time to becoming the shoegazer Steven Sondheim, to which we can only say: wow.
The two bands share a bass player, Mark Ibold, although the general strobey dimness of the stage made it hard to figure out whether he actually played with Sonic Youth this time around.
They also share a common influence: Sonic Youth's own 1987 album Sister, although the older band has pretty much outgrown its earlier, chunkier style (there was a noisy version of the song “White Kross'' from that album), and Pavement, I swear, would have begun to resemble Wilco had they stayed together through the decade. Pavement sounded pretty good, actually: as a devotee mostly of the first album and the first few EPs, I had almost forgotten they were a rock band.
Was Sonic Youth a bit snippy? Perhaps – they're not used to opening, I suspect, for bands in their orbit, and their long set was aggressive, loud, short on the “hits,'' short on the psychedelia, and long on the layered, building drone on which the band made its reputation.
Really – it's been 25 solid years of refusing to bend to the tonic. But at this point in its career, Sonic Youth is at a level of virtuosity equalled by only Nels Cline and the guys who played with Frank Zappa, and the Velvets-brand freakouts, the symphonies of feedback, and the artless singing of both Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have the precision of early technical metallists like King Diamond and Venom, even when Gordon pushes her bass along the floor as if it were a curling broom.
The guitar melodies, such as they are, ride on sustained tones or simple quarter-note rhythms, and even the older songs in the set, such as the 26-year-old “Death Valley 69,'' are pushed into the same arthouse mold. Sonic Youth is always better outside than they are in a formal theater – unusual reverb makes them stronger – and they played the famously bad acoustics of the Hollywood Bowl like a violin.
As for Pavement – who knew! The audience, associate professors of literature and teenage girls alike, knew all the words, sang along where appropriate, punched one another in the arm, and whooped along to the chorus of “Cut Your Hair,'' also known as “the one they used to play on KROQ.''
Malkmus's flannels are better tailored now, and I'm sure this is the first Pavement show I've seen without that weird hippie dude on drums, but the band kind of rocked, grungy where it needed to be but with that fundamental rhythm-section tightness that brings all the boys to the yard, about a dozen more songs than you might have imagined them remembering after a long hiatus. It's hard to know whether Malkmus was more gleeful when he announced that he was going to kill the vibe, or when he announced that this was their last American show. Could be both.
(Would this be a good place to mention the heavy concentration of Priuses and late-model Volvos in the parking lot, or to point out that an early affection for Sonic Youth may be probably a better predictor of academic success than the SATs? Probably not.)
First up was No Age, punk-rock heroes of the downtown all-ages club The Smell, who were more or less compelling, but who still haven't quite assimilated their smashup of New Order and the Buzzcocks, tight punk chording tempered with a scabby crust of guitar, riffs not quite riffy, melodies not quite melodic at this scale.