“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.
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
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.
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.
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.