Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Two Weeks of Thoughts on Sonic Youth...

What does one hipster who was too cool to scam tix to a Sonic Youth show say to the still-die-hard fan who attended with ducats purchased from an online presale via Ticketmaster the instant they went on-sale?

"What old songs did they play?"

Having attended Sonic Youth concerts for over a decade now, I hate to admit it, but this is generally how I'd rate any Sonic Youth show I've ever been to.

On the Thousand Leaves tour I was excited because they ended the set with "Death Valley '69." Everything else was from A Thousand Leaves or the relevant SYR releases of the period.

I should have known better and learned my lesson then.

Every subsequent show has been judged solely on the back-catalog tunes they played. Murray Street tour was alright because they ended the show with "Making the Nature Scene" and Sonic Nurse was cool because they jammed on "Inhuman" with a bunch of Detroit noise dudes.

As a musician, I can understand their position. Anytime you have new songs, those almost instantly become your most favorite to perform live. But as seems to be common-knowledge now, Kim Gordon has declared herself all but finished with playing bass on new Sonic Youth recordings.

So with Mark Ibold (and prior to him, Jim O'Rourke) taking the majority of the bass duty, that leaves fewer and fewer instances where Kim plays bass, ie, does old songs. I actually think that such a bold artistic statement, 20+ years into her musical career, is exciting. It's as if Picasso, at age 65, would have said "I am completely done with paint."

Part of you would think "Well, his other mediums may become even better" while you could just as easily counter with "But you're such a damn good painter!"

The show in Detroit was a let-down, but only because I couldn't get into the old songs they played. I've been listening to The Eternal intently and I'm into it, but I know exactly what to expect from those songs live. There seems to be no experimentation or spontaneity to them. So when their set completely ignores 19 years of their career (1989-2008) I feel that I have ample reason to complain.

Nothing off of Goo, Dirty, Jet-Set, Washing Machine, A Thousand Leaves, NYC Ghosts and Flowers, Murray Street, Sonic Nurse or Rather Ripped. To me, that was appalling. They leaned too heavily on Daydream Nation tracks, unsurprisingly so as it was an album they toured playing in its entirety last year, augmented by "PCH" and "Catholic Block" from Sister and "World Looks Red" from Confusion.

The entire show felt like Sonic Youth cruise control.

But such is the problem when you're an artist with such an enviable back-catalog. SY could easily tour and play nothing but the "hits" and the fans would eat it up. To play the new material still cultivates new fans (and young fans) while old-timers like myself sit here and gripe.

The discouraging part is that it feels like it's eliminated some of the mystique. Sonic Youth is still sacred to me. I still place a lot of faith in them. So when it feels like I've solved a bit of the mystery (ie, we go on tour, play the new album and a handful of old songs) it hurts. I wish it felt a bit more spontaneous, more experimental, more boundary-pushing. The more I dwell on it, the more The Eternal feels completely predictable. It feels like any of that truly wild vibe of the band now finds it outlet in Thurston's noise endeavors.

It's frustrating to feel like I've figured them out, able to predicted their moves, their plans telegraphed….like seeing a magician a few too many times to the point of where you know how he pulls it off. You'll still go to see him every time he comes to town, but you will only leave the show with disappointment that he doesn't wow you like he used to.

But what a difference two weeks makes.

While being clearly bummed about the SY Detroit show, I'd still held out hope for Nashville. I'd managed to finish their "Goodbye 20th Century" biography the day of the show and that felt like some cosmic connection and gave me good vibes.

Even though we arrived 3-4 songs into the set, the vibe was immediately liberating. And as if they'd read my mind, they really did destroy it with the old songs they pulled out. "White Kross", "Shadow of a Doubt", " PCH" (again) and decidedly little off of Daydream, an overrated album if there ever was one.

To top it all off, they ended the set with "Death Valley '69" and it was, dare I say, heavenly. The way the breakdown slowly builds up, rumbles along with the vocals errantly yelping "hit it" and culminates back into the undeniable chorus…it was all teenaged blissful passion bursting through a song about cult murders.

What become more apparent was that while again their set excluded everything from Goo through Rather Ripped (as most of their sets have this year) it finally clicked that all of those albums were released by big, corporate, major labels. Kim's bass disinterest/tendonitis notwithstanding, I think this is a subtle message. Maybe they're saying fuck major labels. Maybe they're saying "free at last, free at last…" Maybe they're not saying anything. That's the beauty of a band who's been around forever…it's so easy to discriminate every last bit of minutiae and foist some self-determined importance to it. It gives hacks like me something to write about at the very least.

Each proper Sonic Youth set was followed by a hush-hush after-show appearance by Thurston at a separate location. In Detroit, the show was in a sweaty basement filled with smelly noise dudes. You had to know the password to get in (for us it was "John Olson") and it was just as much a bummer as the SY gig.

The room was 90% dudes. Thurston would yell something at the opening band, for example "Dudes" and then EVERYONE would start chanting "DUDES! DUDES! DUDES! DUDES!" coupled with a scary raucous banging on the heating/cooling ducts overhead. The few girls in the room were yelling "Kiss him!" but could not be heard over the din.

It was frustrating because, just like the Sonic Youth show, I really wanted to like it. But it was completely formless. Noise music can be so mercurial. I personally LOVE so much of what comes hand-in-hand with that scene… the artwork, the writing/reviews/label copy, frequency/randomness/locations of shows, catering to collectors, hand-made copies…all that stuff is completely up my alley.

But the music is so hit-or-miss. A friend came up to me in the middle of it all and said "There's no way you can possibly like this" and I had no counter to his statement. The curious thing about it all was that with certain people, saying you saw an unannounced Thurston noise performance would carry some sort of bragging rights. .But the people who would be impressed by such a claim are the exact same people who would not be able to stomach 5 minutes of his performance that night, an uninspiring coupling with Greh of Hive Mind.

It was quite funny seeing the tour bus on 11 Mile at 2am, unable to make the turn down the quiet, Royal Oak street where the performance went down. Apparently the tour manager literally had to run down the street to grab Moore and Ibold and get them on the bus.

But the hush-hush noise gig in Nashville was so fucking exciting. Thurston and Leslie Keffer squealed unholy feedback in the sports bar confines of Betty's Bar. It was exactly what noise music needs to be…scary, loud, unpredictable and confrontational. At one point the sole power strip connecting all the amps/pedals/electronics got switched off. Both Thurston and Leslie stopped sheepishly and slowly made moves to get things going again.

I took a breather outside and when I came back in both of them were on the floor in the middle of the crowd, Thurston with a long-haired bandana-wearing bumpkin on his back and Keffer with her evening gown almost over her head, exposing her "not cute" (her words) underwear. They were quick, they were engaging and they left everyone in the room entertained.

Afterwards I approached Thurston and said "That was way better than your show in Detroit."

He responded simply, "Yeah…it definitely was."