Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Live: Sonic Youth

When: 11/24
Where: Bowery Ballroom

Sonic Youth is one of those bands that's hard to review, because they've been examined, analyzed and explained by thousands of critics at every step of their three-decade career. But Sonic Youth is also constantly changing, pushing themselves in new directions (albeit some directions better than others) with each album. Most recently, their 2009 album The Eternal went more rock'n'roll, with heavy, direct songs (direct for Sonic Youth, that is). They've also mixed things up by adding a fifth member, bassist Mark Ibold of Pavement.

It's not the first time Sonic Youth has added a member. A few years back, experimental guitarist Jim O'Rourke was a full-time member on guitar and bass. I saw that incarnation play once, O'Rourke and Lee Ranaldo involved in some avant-garde guitar conspiracy on stage right. Where O'Rourke's presence further abstracted the music, though, Ibold focuses it, keeping the band just heavy enough to stay on the ground.

Also unlike O'Rourke, Ibold doesn't play guitar. He stays on bass, freeing Kim Gordon to sing unencumbered by an instrument, to play guitar or - best of all - to double up on bass. Two bass guitars are almost always better than one! It's nice to see Gordon in a more versatile position. Although she's always been integral to the band, her creative input stood out more than ever at this show.

The rest of the band is unchanged. Despite quite a lot of gray hair, the band doesn't seem to be aging. Thurston Moore is still his boyish self, climbing on speakers and amps and attacking his guitar with unrivaled intensity. Lee is as calm and deliberate as ever while drummer Steve Shelley, with his content, steady smile, is even more agile on his kit than I remembered.

The band played a great mix of new and old songs. The set was by far the most focused and straight-forward I've ever heard from them, and I can't even remember how many times I've seen them now (never before with Ibold, though). I've seen sets at the opposite extreme, where Thurston and Lee just make feedback for an hour, and I definitely felt more like I got my money's worth at this show. There were some noise freak-outs, which is good, because it's not Sonic Youth without that. They just didn't take over the majority of the set. And the selection of old songs was great. They played some of their less obvious classics, like "Catholic Block," "Tom Violence" and "Silver Rocket." Sadly, they skipped "Teenage Riot," but did get "Schizophrenia" into the encore.

All in all, it was a classic Sonic-Youth-at-the-top-of-their-game show. It's not 1988, but that's not Sonic Youth's fault. They've done more than any other indie band to keep themselves from growing stale, and while their efforts have been hit or miss, I'd say this era is right on target.

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