View more photos in Timothy Norris' Sonic Youth slideshow.
There was Kim in sequins and Thurston in a conservative plaid button-down, same as always, give or take. He in jeans and basketball high-tops like he was on the way to a bookstore or something; she moaning, strumming and swinging and headed to the discotheque. Lee over on the other side on the way to teach a seminar, getting tangled in his ringing strings, his hair flat silver, his wrist healed from an autumn break that forced the band to cancel the original date for Saturday night's Wiltern show. Steve Shelley, former drummer for the Crucifucks, was his typically metronomic self. Bassist Mark Ibold, best known as Pavement's thumper, held forth the bottom end.
It was Sonic Youth. New songs, yes. But it was Sonic Youth.
Which, no duh. Of course it's Sonic Youth. Sixteen albums and 30 years into their career, there are few Big Surprises. You know Sonic Youth's sound: detuned, untuned, mystified yet somehow miraculously melodic. Chunks of beefy chords lined in a jagged row, with breaks for beautiful grace notes and surprising melodic runs. Kim Gordon's voice hasn't hit a proper note in 30 years (which is awesome). It's a weird vibe they bring, unlike any other rock band's in the planet, one that has made for a remarkable career. Toss in the frequent experimental EP on their private-press SYR label in which they travel further into their sound via massive Serra-esque sound pieces, and you've got an impressive body of work.
But for all the ways in which Sonic Youth crack open rock & roll and tangle up its innards, the band has, for the most part left the concert experience alone, seemingly fine with the construct that's been handed down through the ages: play for a couple hours; concentrate on the new material, but toss in a few surprising gems from the past; do a couple encores. In New York the band stretches further into dance and experimental gigs, but when they take it on the road, they usually give the people what they want, more or less: a rock concert. They've done the 'classic album' performance — the shockingly great replaying of Daydream Nation at the Greek in '07 (with Redd Kross doing Born Innocent first!) — and are known to toss in a cover song from time to time.
This “outside-the-box” predictability goes all the way down to the band's presentation: You'll never see Thurston walk out in a gold-spangled tuxedo and Lee arrive in a Nudie suit; they'll never add a second drummer, synth player or backing vocalists; they'll never surprise us and bust out the entirety of the classic Ciccone Youth The Whitey Album with a cameo by Mike Watt; the stage show will always feature lots of strobes, and an arty backdrop. Thurston will never walk over the crowd in an inflatable ball a la Wayne Coyne. The surprises lie within the music, not without.
Last night they (predictably) played all dozen songs from their sturdy new album The Eternal, and then, unpredictably, dipped back into their classic late-eighties threesome of Daydream Nation, Sister and Evol for the other five songs. (Interestingly, these three albums were released on one of two LA-based record labels, SST Records and Enigma Records). It was a set of three-to-five-minute song bursts, more punk than sprawl. There were no massive 20-minute freakouts, no percussive reinventions. It was rock show, with rock songs.
Though not terribly surprising, it was still a pretty enthralling Sonic Youth show — their final encore included “Shadow of a Doubt,” from Evol, fer chrissakes, in the process revisiting a moment when the band rewrote the harmonic rules on what a guitar-pop song could be. They followed it with “Death Valley '69,” about the Manson Family murders, and revisited a moment when the band fucking killed it, when they rewrote the rules on what a rock & roll anthem could be — skewed, alien, fucked up, wild and smart.
1. No Way
2. Sacred Trickster
3. Hey Joni
4. Calming The Snake
6. Walkin Blue
7. Poison Arrow
8. Stereo Sanctity
9. Malibu Gas Station
11. Leaky Lifeboat
12. What We Know
13. Massage The History
14. The Sprawl
15. 'Cross the Breeze
16. Shadow Of A Doubt
17. Death Valley '69