Sonic Youth At The Arch
A post by M. Thomas Stevens
In an attempt to describe the Sonic Youth concert under the arch last Friday, I flatly told a friend that Sonic Youth made international news by destroying the national monument with acoustic resonance. Now, I doubt that the massive metal catenary would show the slightest perturbation, even when pummeled by the most acute feedback burst, but it’s a fantasy straight from my 9th grade school bus ride. I thought then, as I ecstatically piped in “Daydream Nation” day after day, that this was music I would never hear performed. But what vaults Sonic Youth above other bands is their potential to draw from their catalogue of almost thirty years of music. Moreover, while different epochs of their work are fairly dissimilar, they don’t negate their evolution as a band by refusing to play earlier tunes, rather they dust them off with gusto that would probably rival that of their original performance.
It pains me to say that I missed the opening of the concert because I was scarfing my friend’s animal crackers that security, for whatever important reason, would not allow in the vicinity. Sauntering down the amphitheatre steps full of crusty giraffes, I was immediately struck by my first glimpse of the band. They all appeared as effortlessly hip as ever, typified by the towering Thurston with dark glasses and swishable mop, joined now by Mark Ibold (former bassist of late Pavement, Dustdevils). As I understand it, Ibold is a fixture in the group who had a role in developing much of the latest release, “The Eternal”. On stage, he mainly octaved or doubled Kim’s bass, which may have allowed her to focus on her vocals, which I thought were markedly improved from the last performance I saw in Chicago two years ago. On the whole, the musicians seemed like they had just come from a stint of rigorous rehearsals, playing almost all of the material on “The Eternal” with a distinguished precision for a band to which some critics append the word “jam”. Notably, there were several cuts on which Thurston, Lee, and Kim shared and harmonized vocal parts, an arrangement tactic I had never heard them employ before.
Punctuating all of the songs from “The Eternal” were a few well-placed surprises, namely “Stereo Sanctity” from 1987’s “Sister”, which has some of the group’s most cochlea-scraping riffing in the chorus, closed by powerful falling glissandos that pound the body. To me, it is one of their most thematically memorable songs, with echoes of cyberpunkish/post-apocalyptic assignment of divinity, soul, or life to the machine, or even to their own overdriven amps. Then, with an ethereal, arpeggiated intro began “Malibu Gas Station”, one of the picks from “The Eternal” that really shined live. The layers of instrumentation on the album translated perfectly to the stage, from the surf-y modal warp of Lee’s guitars coupled with Thurston’s dense chording in the verses, to Kim’s harrowing vocals at the apex, to the shimmering denouement. And all this set against the last rays of sunset crossing over into twilight. The closed the set out with the apt choice of their album closer, “Massage the History”, with Thurston on an acoustic guitar accompanied by Lee on a warbling slide. To me, it feels like a merger of the American folk tradition, Eastern traditional, and ambient electronics, like an expansion of the textures on “Trees Outside the Academy”.
It was at this point where I was unsure of the audience’s level of interest. In this quiet piece I was surrounded by vapid chatter and choice concert sound bytes like “Hey, man, roll that one fat, this is, like, Sonic Youth!” Much to my relief, the final cheers were enough to garner two more encores. The first consisted of two favorites from “Daydream Nation”: “The Sprawl” and “’Cross the Breeze”, which to me exemplify the versatility and uniqueness of their sound. From the driving haze of “The Sprawl”, with its chorus of cro-magnon percussion from Shelley, to hypertempo dissonant polka in “’Cross the Breeze”, to both of their expansive feedback-laden melodic codas, they bring to mind everything I enjoy about listening to Sonic Youth.
The second encore was absolutely thrilling, but was capped by the ultimate anti-orgasm. It began with the somber “Shadow of a Doubt” from “EVOL”, which sees a whispery, distracted Kim mutate into a banshee in a sinister guitar forest. Though I am not as well-acquainted with this record, as I understand this song is an epic fave out of their whole discog. My doubts about the crowd were quashed when there were rampant lyric shouts during “Death Valley ‘69” from “Bad Moon Rising”, which is heralded as one of their first “hits”, and whose Richard Kern-directed video is a masterful gore-filled recounting of the Manson murders. It was a chilling, macabre timbre to bring the evening to the close, but the sensation was almost trounced by the blatant display of disrespect that followed. At the end of the final song, when Thurston and Lee proceeded to launch into the ritual guitar abuse and feedback finale, the stage speakers were mysteriously faded out and replaced by Top 40 while a spray of fireworks went off behind the band. I was confused beyond belief, and the most mortifying part was that their earpiece monitors still gave them the illusion of being heard. It was a bizarre spectacle of performance art, perhaps like watching Jackson Pollack fling invisible paint on a canvas from all four sides whilst blasting Beyonce or comparable fare on a nearby boombox. After it was clear to them that they had been cut off, the band went around to the back of the stage to watch the pyrotechnic display. I could only hope that this didn’t mar their perception of the city for all time.
But honestly, what was the sound brigade thinking? If the crowd begged for dual encores, it’s clear they wouldn’t be averse to ending the show with waves of obliviating noise pricked by the occasional firework burst. In fact, I think it would have been unanimously awesome. I walked away with a bad taste, but it was soon refreshed by the more savory moments the rest of the evening brought. Besides, Sonic Youth’s quality output and commitment to touring seems to show no signs of coming to a head anytime soon.
(Video thanks to Sensored Media)