There couldn’t have been two more divergent crowds at the pair of Los Angeles-area shows Sonic Youth put in on July 20 and 21. The band played at the Greek Theatre the first night, running through its iconic landmark Daydream Nation as part of the Don’t Look Back series. That crowd was made up of older, middle-aged Sonic Youth fans basking in nostalgia and quite possibly more enjoying some camaraderie under the beautiful SoCal evening a bit more than what was going on onstage. The next night found the band rocking the rafters of the Urban Outfitters store along Santa Monica’s tourist- and homeless-heavy Third Street Promenade, finishing up the recent Free Yr Radio campaign to benefit non-commercial radio stations. That crowd, as might be expected, was much younger — teens and twentysomethings in rapt awe of a band that had so much to do with the current ascendancy of “indie rock.” The difference in crowds was but one example of how vital Sonic Youth still is, of how the music the musicians play has aged so well with them while continuing to inspire legions of younger admirers.
Sonic Youth whipped through Daydream Nation with the album cover’s simple candle motif depicted behind them, over which various light patterns were projected throughout the night. Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo came out with axes blazing. At the end of “Teen Age Riot,” the two ran at each other and clashed guitars like Star Wars characters clanging light sabers. Kim Gordon played bass and chimed in with her vocals, looking as cool as always in a black-and-white, horizontally-striped mini dress. Ranaldo ranted through his numbers as if the twenty years since Daydream Nation have done nothing to lessen his fervor. And drummer Steve Shelley, the easiest to forget about among Sonic Youth’s original foursome, kept everything in lockstep behind his kit.
After finishing up with Daydream Nation, the band came back for two encores of songs taken all from last year’s Rather Ripped, joined by ex-Pavement member Mark Ibold on bass. As the band took the stage again, Ranaldo told the crowd, “Now we’re gonna get you back into the twenty-first century.” Moore yelled out, “All right, ‘Incinerate,’ ” and the band ripped into that tune. Gordon dropped everything to focus on vocals on “Reena” and “Jams Run Free,” bobbing around with infectious energy and swirling her arms in big circles, made even huger by her giant shadow cast behind her. Some extended noise experimentation, with Moore manipulating a tape deck that was playing some of Phil Collins’ “Hold on My Heart,” led nicely into a gorgeous version of “Do You Believe in Rapture?” And Sonic Youth’s second encore consisted simply of the band tripping through, all Dionysian and Doors-like, the Rather Ripped closer, “Or.”
Freed from having to play one whole album the next night, the musicians were able to get more eclectic with their repertoire. After a quite blase opening deejay set from Dntel — none of the world, pop, techno, or experimental music Jimmy Tamborello spun really caught on with the crowd — Sonic Youth (again abetted by Ibold) opened with “The World Looks Red.” The band absolutely killed “Bull in the Heather,” with Shelley really shining; you could’ve closed your eyes and thought there had to be a drum machine up there to sound that tight. Moore was his genial, funny self again, chatting with the crowd about what stores are still around on the Promenade and if anyone had finished the new Harry Potter book. Ranaldo got to rant again on “Skip Tracer.” And this night’s jam session before “Rapture” featured an even more ironically bad song: the everywhere in L.A. “Lean Like a Cholo.” This time I couldn’t figure out if it was coming from the tape (alas, no big screens were up to focus in on what Moore was doing like there had been at the Greek) or from the radio (very likely, because the song is guaranteed to be playing somewhere along the dial here 24/7). But I’m guessing, what with Moore’s sly sense of humor, the song’s appearance wasn’t a coincidence.
Sonic Youth encored with “Pink Steam,” and afterward Moore said, “See you on the streets.” Then the kids, both the ones in the crowd and onstage, the ones in a band getting older yet still so vital and exuberant, headed out to enjoy the rest of a Saturday night.