Live Review: Sonic Youth

by Mitch Goldman

Legion Field, Athens, GA 10/14/95
Roxy Theatre, Atlanta, GA 10/15/95
Academy Theatre, New York, NY 10/20 & 21/95

It occurred to me recently that Sonic Youth are as old now, as a band, as the Grateful Dead were when I first became a fan in 1978 ... 14 years old, to be exact. At the time of my first Dead show, the boys (and girl) seemed like the elder statesmen of their generation; I guess in some ways Sonic Youth has the same feel. Rock, as an art form, is much older than it was in 1978, so in general, bands who have stayed together are older too. But it's odd to think that SY have the same kind of rich history and depth that the Dead had 17 years ago.

In fact, SY do have the depth, body of work, and historical influence to qualify as the "elders" of alternative, post-punk rock. When Thurston Moore and then-girlfriend (now wife) Kim Gordon first formed SY with Thurston's ex-Glenn Branca Orchestra buddy Lee Ranaldo back in 1981, they were just beginning to discover the joys of alternate tunings (their first record, the eponymous EP released on Branca's label in 1982, features all standard tunings). Things got weirder and noisier, and through three drummers and four studio releases, SY staked out a drony, contemplative yet noisy musical territory that really sounded like nothing that came before. Sure, there were musical forebears to this kind of approach (Branca, Swell Maps, early Wire); but to this day, SY have the uncanny ability to always sound like themselves and no one else while still progressing in non-linear ways. Most bands become tighter and more focused with each release (ideally, anyway); but the Youth have taken tangental directions with each release since the addition of their (hopefully) final drummer Steve Shelley in 1986. Evol, released that year, consolidated the drony, noisy rock approach first used on their earlier records. Sister (1987) featured more to-the-point fast rock tunes; their watershed double LP Daydream Nation (1988) fused the two disparate elements for a vast, sprawling, visual soundscape that both defined and ended the real post-punk era of the '80s. On their first two major label releases, Goo (1990) and Dirty (1992), SY pared down the sound and scope, focusing on tighter, more "big-rock" numbers, without losing their alternative-tuning approach to dissonance that makes them so appealling and unique. And last year's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star seemed to hark back to Evol with its drony, quiet-yet-creepy songs.

Headlining Lollapalooza this year, and playing the best shows of their career, SY debuted new tunes from their recently released Washing Machine (their twelth studio record), and it was obvious from the live versions that SY were about to hit a real peak as a recording band. WM is the loosest, most relaxed SY record yet, and it may have something to do with being recorded in Nashville (the first SY record made outside New York City). Yet it's also reminiscent of Daydream Nation in its scope and sprawl; the title track, described by Thurston as a "mini rock opera" clocks in at nine minutes, and "The Diamond Sea," the beautiful suite of melodicism and feedback fury that closes the album, runs nearly 20 minutes. In between, every tune starts in one place but goes in a myriad of others.... "Unwind" is the prettiest SY melody ever, yet builds feverishly to a noisy climax, as does "Junkie's Promise"; Lee gives us two great songs, the lovely "Saucer-Like" and the "talking blues" of "Skip Tracer." All three of SY's frontmen (and -woman!) reveal further facets of their musical personalities, and, as usual, Steve Shelley anchors the proceedings deftly with his solid, subtle drumming.

Lollapalooza merely whetted the appetites of SY fans, and Washing Machine and its accompanying fall tour have been highly anticipated; so much so by me that I attended five of the East Coast shows on this tour (two in Georgia, and three in New York, including an afternoon show at the soon-to-be-demolished Academy theatre).

SY are astonishingly consistent live, while still retaining a Dead-like quality by changing the setlists, performing certain songs with improvisational sections, and generally giving the listener the feeling that any and every night could be a revelatory experience. Not since the Dead has there been a band that presented truly magical possibilities at every show; Sonic Youth transport their fans to a new musical and spiritual place, even in their most perfunctory performances.

The Athens show on 10/14 was the only outdoor show in the East, and even performing on a muddy field at the University of Georgia after two days of rain, SY were positively transcendent. From the opening stretch of oldies ("Tom Violence," "White Cross," "Brother James," and Lee's classic "Eric's Trip" from Daydream Nation) to the newer material, SY were on at this show ... "Washing Machine," like most of the new tunes, features bass player Kim on a down-tuned, six-string guitar; Lee switches axes in the middle of this number, and the last six minutes of three guitar throb are irresistable. The show built in intensity, and the set climaxed (as it does every night on this tour) with "The Diamond Sea." "Diamond," which runs anywhere from ten to thirteen minutes live, is always different, and is always a truly amazing and exhausting experience to watch and hear. Starting with the main song structure, the tune veers wildly into intense jamming and finally a long, noisy, feedback segment that retains momentum and heft while dragging the listener into a true "Dark Star" kind of space. By the time the song is resolved with the final verse, the tempo is slower, Thurston's voice is run through a harmonizer, and the structure is transformed. It's as if the last verse has been pulled through the dark heart of the middle of the piece and come out freakishly mutated, while still retaining an eerie beauty. "Diamond Sea" is the perfect vehicle for SY, showcasing everything that's great about the band — noise, melody, improv, space — it is a truly indescribable experience.

And it remains indescribable every night, though it seems to change and grow. Some nights, like the Atlanta show and the "matinee" performance at the Academy in New York, it seems a little shorter, a little more forced in its resolution (though no less powerful for its abbreviation). It's quite strange that when "Diamond Sea" lasts only a minute shorter than the previous night, you can still feel its brevity (if "brevity" can be applied to any song that runs over ten minutes!). Like the Dead's "Dark Star," "Diamond Sea" takes you through a different space every night. Though it has a similar mapping at every performance, the tone and the approach seem to differ. It's like a rocket to the moon that takes a different course to ultimate destination every time. You know you'll end up in the same place, but the trip is changing constantly.

The Atlanta show the next night seemed to veer towards more new material, and contained some nice surprises ... Lee's near-rap tune "Skip Tracer," played and sung to perfection; a surprise version of "The World Looks Red" from their very first album Confusion is Sex; a great version of the rarely-played "Waist" from Experimental; and the only second encore segment at any of these shows. Thurston dedicated "World Looks Red" to some kids who had driven up from Miami to see the Georgia shows; SY are nothing if not approachable by their fans.

The three New York City shows at the Academy started off with a major bang on Friday night, as the Youth opened with an extra long, extra intense "Teenage Riot" which featured a long, extended feedback coda that was not played at any of the other shows. Lee in particular was in amazing form that night ... his Les Paul soloing on the end section of "Washing Machine" was nothing short of spectacular, and again, this was different and better than at any other performance. He also outdid himself on the bluesy licks during "No Queen Blues". "Unwind" was a spectacular encore, starting with a quiet beauty, and ending with full three-guitar fury. Even Kim was bursting with energy at this show; her stage-dancing during "Starfield Road" showed the joy and reckless abandon that even the over-30s (or should I say "over-40s") can engage in.

The two New York shows on Saturday were also great, though the afternoon show seemed a little rushed in parts. It did have its highlights, however ... a moving version of "100%" from Dirty, an intense "Brother James," and another great Lee delivery of "Skip Tracer." The evening show found SY in more energetic form, as they delivered brutal versions of "White Cross," "The World Looks Red," and the rarely played new tune "Panty Lies" (on which Lee placed a screwdriver under his guitar strings for maximum noise distress!). Best of all, the show climaxed with a roof-raising version of Lee's tune "Mote," the only tune from Goo played at any of the shows so far. A fitting, explosive end to an amazing run of shows.

I'm left with not only a head full of resonant music, but some striking visual memories as well: Kim's dancing every night on "Starfield Road" (and Lee's down-on-his-knees-knob-twiddling that accompanied that tune); Thurston and Lee slamming drumsticks on their strings during "Eric's Trip"; Lee's guitar tech tuning EIGHTEEN different guitars (with different tunings) during the opening acts; Steve Shelley's joyous smile as he pounded his snare drum with a maracas on "Bull in the Heather"; Thurston knocking over his mike during his thrashing stage behavior on "Mote" ... and I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that Sonic Youth have never been better, more relaxed, more in control of their art, and more in touch with that mysterious zone where music, emotion, thought, noise, and beauty all meld with the group mind of the audience to create a special, breathless moment every night. "The Diamond Sea" is the ultimate vehicle to reach this magical place, but SY do it on almost every tune, every night. Few bands can achieve the kind of audience/band/music synthesis Sonic Youth seem to tap into so effortlessly; for them, and us, the future is wide open.

SETLISTS:

Legion Field, Athens, GA 10/14/95 9:45–11:00

Tom Violence
White Cross
Brother James
Eric's Trip
Washing Machine
Junkie's Promise
Becuz
Candle
Bull in the Heather
Starfield Road
Saucer-Like
The Diamond Sea

Encores:

Skink
Schizophrenia

Roxy Theatre, Atlanta, GA 10/15/95 9:52–11:11

Teenage Riot
Bull in the Heather
Starfield Road
Washing Machine
No Queen Blues
Bone
Saucer-Like
100%
The World Looks Red
Skip Tracer
Skink
The Diamond Sea

Encores:

Becuz
Waist

Schizophrenia

Academy Theatre, NYC 10/20/95 10:01–11:18

Intro->
Teenage Riot
Bull in the Heather
Starfield Road
White Cross
Saucer-Like
Washing Machine
No Queen Blues
Tom Violence
Becuz
Eric's Trip
Skink
The Diamond Sea

Encores:

Unwind
Schizophrenia

Academy Theatre, NYC 10/21/95 (matinee) 4:00–5:12

Schizophrenia
Tom Violence
Saucer-Like
Bull In the Heather
Starfield Road
Washing Machine
Bone
Junkie's Promise
100%
Skip Tracer
Brother James
The Diamond Sea

Encores:

Becuz
Teenage Riot

Academy Theatre, NYC 10/21/95 (evening) 9:48–11:06

Teenage Riot
White Cross
Washing Machine
Saucer-Like
Bull in the Heather
Starfield Road
Becuz
Junkie's Promise
Panty Lies
The World Looks Red
Skink
The Diamond Sea

Encores:

Unwind
Mote


Copyright 1996
Back for more Live Reviews