Sonic Youth and The Feelies @ The Wilbur Theatre, Boston
Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009
Of all the bands that were instrumental in the rise of “alternative” music in the late ’80s/early ’90s, Sonic Youth was among the most important. They got their buddies Nirvana signed to Geffen, after all, helping create the tsunami that crested over the radio and retail sales, sending out a fleet of well-pocketed A&R men with a ravenous hunger to sign anyone with two guitars and a flannel shirt. Sonic Youth didn’t sell nearly as many records, but they did more to foster the sense of community and collaboration than any other band, growing it up on a grassroots strategy.
Almost 20 years after making the leap to a major label, Sonic Youth is just as relevant. Sure, they’ve slipped into a pretty comfortable zone of writing, playing and performing, but The Eternal is a strong, cohesive statement, resting comfortably with the solid records they’ve done since Murray Street revitalized them.
I’ve seen Sonic Youth about 10 times before, so I knew what to expect: a heavy dose of the new material and some surprises and twists tucked in along the way. The opening songs were decent but not fueling abandon in the crowd. They led with “No Way,” a pretty standard Sonic Youth song, with Thurston’s vocal line sounding like any number of songs that could have been plucked off Washing Machine or Dirty. “Sacred Trickster” had Kim Gordon’s (polarizing) vocals skipping over the top of a charged-up Steve Shelley drum pounding, while Mark Ibold set up his hunchbacked posture stance over the bass for the rest of the show.
After a brief thrashing of the discordant “Stereo Sanctity” from 1987’s Sister, things took off. Lee Ranaldo stepped up for “Walkin Blue” and “What We Know,” a highlight that added credibility to the argument that he’s the band’s best singer. “Anti-Orgasm” featured the visuals of LED lights while Ranaldo and Moore abused Jazzmaster guitars from their own Fender lines. Both players are infamous for using a different guitar with a different tuning for each song, but a theft in ’99 brought to a close that era of the band’s sound and approach to songwriting.
It was most interesting to watch them play the older material, such as “Shadow Of A Doubt” (one of the best atmospheric songs they’ve ever done) and the encore-closing “Death Valley ’69.” Ranaldo was using guitars I’d never seen him play before, including a Gibson Epiphone and a Travis Bean (also featured on “Tom Violence”). I didn’t notice any particular change in sound, especially on the raging “Death Valley ’69,” with Gordon taking the primal scream role that Lydia Lunch originally provided and Moore swinging and strangling his guitar in his trademark style. The “I heart Chaos” sticker stuck on his aging Jazzmaster is not false advertising.
Hearing “The Sprawl” and “Cross The Breeze” was an unexpected treat as well, but when you’ve got a record (Daydream Nation) listed in the Library of Congress, you might as well recognize it. The regular set closer of “Massage The History” featured Moore playing an acoustic, with Gordon’s high-pitched, plaintive vocals recalling those of Blonde Redhead. How’s that for a turnaround?
The reinvigorated Feelies were the opener, bringing their tightly wound Velvet Underground-style riffage and terse, nervous percussion to a receptive audience. Indeed, I can’t think of an instance where an opener got an encore, but the Hoboken crew was certainly deserving of one. As far as I can tell, their rejuvenation is directly linked to a 2008 show at Battery Park, when they opened for Sonic Youth at that band’s request. Since then, I’ve seen them play three times. Twenty years is a pretty long time for dust to build and rust to form, but the band sounds just as good as they did in ’89, with the sun-glassed Glenn Mercer slashing at his Telecaster and the percussion unit of Stan Demeski and Dave Weckerman working like a Swiss metronome.