Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Concert Review: Sonic Youth

Royal Oak Music Theatre - June 29
(words: jeff milo)
(photos: mike milo)

Just Last Night: with - Sonic Youth
Killing time and filling in the steamy air of the sold-out theatre, I was just about to lean over and admit to a friend that I’ve run out of things to say about Sonic Youth. Not in a bad way. - It doesn’t help that I’m already a chronic over-thinker, but, the band (Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelly) is unassailable to any grandiose, big picture, catchall rants or summations.

Not merely because the band's been around for nearly 30 years, that they just put out their 16th album (The Eternal), that they’ve never lost their "cred," – but for their ability to turn almost any preconception on its ear. Like musical mirrors. Appraised for their vast influence and thus, fame, they respond by qualifying, as Gordon did in Our Band Could Be Your Life, that they’re famous-for-being-influential. While still not sitting in any genre-descriptor colloquialism, Beatlesy, Stonesy, Motown…Sonic Youth are famous for having their name dropped by Cobain and countless others, yet never hitting anyone hard enough to inspire an exact mold replicant, (or perhaps being impossible to recreate?) Or, take their latest Pitchfork interview - where, upon pressed for potential "infiltration(s)" of the mainstream, Gordon responds that, no, indeed, the mainstream is "infiltrating us..."

After such lore being spun – (the band that, back in the early 80’s, emerged from the ceaselessly revered, musing murk of the New York post-punk scene and tipped the punk scales of No-Wave into what was (or still is?) known as indie-rock) and after so many albums, (Sister, Daydream Nation, Evol and on and on…now to The Eternal, on Matador), what more can be said?

I don’t know, but it’s clearly driven me crazy. I’m glad I didn’t get to squeak that thought out last night, having instead unpacked it here, apologies. Between songs, at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, a couple of older dudes behind me quipped that Ranaldo’s guitar needed to come waaaay up – that it wasn’t like shows of the past where their heads would be blown clear off their shoulders by the shunted fuzzy blast of the amps. Well, if you can complain about moderate sound levels – you can’t complain about much else from last night.

The band, despite passing into their 50’s, slid out onto the stage with the energy and swaggering/shrugging stance of their finely preserved 20-something-selves. Ranaldo and Gordon were staid, yet majestic in their slight undulations while conjuring feedback furled freakifications from their respective guitar and bass. Moore, meanwhile , more so than past shows I’ve seen, seemed particularly electrified, often lunging out toward the edge of the stage as if his guitar were a broadsword and he was ready to decapitate all of us. Opening with the grinding, booming brevity of The Eternal’s opener, "Sacred Trickster," the band felt, as ever, just as nonchalantly devastating as they’ve always been, with the same doom-punch hooks, droney-tones, haunting but catchy melodies and guttural yet poetic lyrics (classic Sonic Youth-ism, "…getting dizzy sitting around…").

The towering Moore, clad in humdrum flannel, sidestepped his mic-stand and scraped the neck across the clamped microphone before pivoting back to start riffing again. Meanwhile, the shaggy, ever-Uncle-ish looking Ranaldo twenty feet to Moore’s right, locked into the gloriously herky-jerky driving burn hook of Sister’s "Catholic Block," which featured in even more stretched out interlude of amp-teasing reverb.

Along with SY’s amorphous cultural classification – it’s also futile to compare live shows from specific tours. Their catalog is both large and unique (through 16 albums and no traditional "hit single" in their repertoire, each fan will have his or her own wish-list for a set). So, you’re going to have to calm expectations and accept that much of their set will probably draw heavily, (in the 75% region) from their latest release – which was the case last night.

Fortunately, this night’s presentation of Eternal’s songs, (a record featuring a mashing of black-metal and guitar-heavy noise-pop), were done with such vigor and allure, with grinding grime, mixing enlivening and upsetting noise-freak-outs, and setting such potent grooves, that it made me appreciate its songs even more than upon first listen.

"Poison Arrow," with Gordon’s typical ear-bending wail, so splendid, yet so banshee-like, seemed to not distract as much (as on record) from Moore’s dynamic, stabbing hooks and Shelly’s propulsive pounds. "Anti-Orgasm," another quintessential haunt-pop addition to the catalog, revealed itself to be the most hypnotic, in terms of inducing a grinning sway and nice head-bop spread throughout the crowd – plus that dirty/visceral chorus pound of all three guitarists pumping "uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh!!"

"Antenna," a personal favorite so far on record, seemed to fall a bit flat – but even that’s a soft complaint. It’s simply more of a driving, meditative rocker, a bit atmospheric and shimmering, but overall a nice soaring ballad – which is deemed flat only by comparison to the stomp and rouse delivery of much of the rest of the set.

Eventually you just run out of things to say. The anomaly of Sonic Youth is that they’ve simply continued to do what they’ve always done and not only consistently pleased, not only avoided falls from grace, but have been able to avoid becoming parodies of themselves, never looking desperate, never falling apart. Yes the sound could have been louder, and maybe at some points the band could have been more engaging toward the hundreds of heads in the sea before them…, but all in all still solid. Always, at the very least, solid. What more can you say? I’m not sure I’ve said much, even…, Ah well…

The Entrance Band opened up. This California trio, spearheaded by singer/guitarist Guy Blakeslee (with bassist Paz Lenchantin and drummer Derek James) blends straight and stringent flavors of psychedelia and metal – with soul-punching solos, bewitching grooves and a surprisingly stage-filling boom to their mode. More info at: http://www.myspace.com/entrancerecords
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