Show Review (Starlight Ballroom, Philadelphia)

    “You don’t look that
    old!” offered an audience member as the members of Sonic Youth —
    alternately jittery and ambling (guitarist Thurston Moore) and demure
    and shuffling (guitarist Lee Ranaldo) — arrived on stage at the
    gloriously intimate Starlight Ballroom. Whatever his intentions, I had
    to disagree with the guy, especially after witnessing the wiry
    teenagers in Nashville’s Be Your Own Pet run themselves ragged fifteen minutes ago. With a median age of forty-nine, the four of them (plus former Pavement
    bassist Mark Ibold) each have their age-revealing quirks: Moore’s
    “mid-life paunch,” Ranaldo’s gray hair, drummer Steve Shelley’s jowls.
    The signs are all there. But who wants ageless rockers when you have
    musicians who have lived through multiple ages and
    defined half of them. Whatever their physical or musical foibles, Sonic
    Youth’s appeal is about the wealth of experience the members exude, not
    the wealth of plastic surgery.

     

    [more:]

     

    Pulling extensively from the just-released Rather Ripped — another
    phenomenal effort dealing in this world-weary wisdom — the five
    players seemed at least sub-consciously aware of, and at peace with,
    their elder-statesmen status. Unfortunately, more than a few of the
    record’s best tunes suffered from the live treatment. Ranaldo, whose
    stage presence — shoulders bent, face down — was endearingly awkward,
    nonetheless flubbed one too many of his lines in “Sleepin’ Around,”
    “The Neutral” and “Turquoise Boy.” (“I’m still learning these ones,” he
    claimed.) 

     

    Of
    course, maybe we wouldn’t have noticed all the flat notes if the mix
    hadn’t placed Ranaldo center stage. Despite the fact that bassists
    Ibold and Kim Gordon often doubled-up, the mix’s guitar bias left the
    lower frequencies conspicuously absent. Rather Ripped‘s “Rats” — a hot slab of urban paranoia that rides high on Moore’s diabolic bass line — sounded particularly under-cooked.

     

    But
    these disappointments were small, especially when compared to the
    pleasures of hearing Gordon (who, yes, looks amazing for a
    fifty-three-year-old mother) screech and moan her way through ancient
    tunes such as “Pacific Coast Highway” (from 1987’s Sister) and “Shaking Hell” (from 1983’s Confusion is Sex),
    which she introduced as being “so fucking old it was written before you
    were born.” “Pattern Recognition,” a standout from 2004’s Sonic Nurse, was another welcome blast of white-hot fuzz that suffered little from the loss of guitarist Jim O’Rourke last year.

     

    The
    thrill of seeing an immeasurably important band in such a measurably
    small venue may have been diminished by a few weak performances, but
    Sonic Youth’s good humor and camaraderie made it all worthwhile.
    Whether they were inviting the handful of forty-five-year-olds upfront
    or riffing on the Ballroom’s brutal humidity, Moore and company never
    felt distant, never too cool to hang out with the next generation of
    hipsters now salivating over the bands they influenced. It’s only
    fitting, really, that a band that made an art out of stumbling its way
    through the music is now happily stumbling its way through middle age.

     

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