Photo: Jerome Eno
Sonic Youth, live at the Wilbur Theatre, November 22, 2009
Even before there were festivals like All Tomorrow’s Parties to formalize the concept, Sonic Youth have always given off a curatorial air. In addition to their own music, they have consistently gone to great lengths to telegraph their associations with underground acts they approve of, as well as older acts they count as important influences. Tonight’s show found them dragging out an example of the latter, as New Jersey’s legendary Feelies opened with a rare reunion set.
The band is best known for their seminal 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, and tonight, as they played a set that drew heavily from that album, it was easy to see why. The insistent throbbing pulse of jittery poppers like “Crazy Rhythms” and “Raised Eyebrows” radiated an infectious vibe that resuscitated the band’s trademark. That latter tune also indicated where the band’s seminal album might have gotten its name — their typical two-drum assault was augmented by bassist Brenda Sauter’s added percussion, resulting in some truly nutty moments of manic rhythmic bliss. The band is still, fortunately, partial to a Velvet-esque sense of tense cool that gives way to regular eruption of guitar pyrotechnics, and tonight was a rare opportunity to see guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million trade licks one more time.
The Feelies laid the groundwork for a lot of what would be dubbed “indie” in their wake, and Sonic Youth were, in a sense, one of the many bands (cough, Yo La Tengo, cough) who would take their baton and run a lot further with it. Tonight, Sonic Youth strolled on stage with the relaxed confidence of tenured college profs giving one more in a series of countless brain-blowing lectures. And why shouldn’t they? They’re going on their fourth decade and seem constantly in the throes of a new album. Tonight was no exception, as the setlist leaned very heavily on this year’s The Eternal — a strong record that finds the band continuing to dig themselves out of the effects-laden doldrums that made so many of their mid-’90s-to-early-’00s albums such a chore to get through.
Sonic Youth are known largely as noise practitioners, and although to a certain extent this is true, it ignores the fact that guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore are meticulous songwriters, creating their ornate guitarchitecture out of intricate interlocking lines, textures, and tunings. The duo even took the stage sporting their own signature Fender guitars, and when they locked into the articulate frenzy of newer tracks, like “Anti-Orgasm” and “Poison Arrow,” the reality of a Sonic Youth guitar line seemed neatly explained.
There’s an ageless grace to this band that is, all these years later, still a wonder to behold. Bolstered more recently by erstwhile Pavement bassist Mark Ibold (meaning that, yes, much of the set is powered by two basses — his and Kim Gordon’s), the band is still in prime form, able to dip into an endless back catalog of favorites while still letting their current material set the mood. The Eternal rocks darkly, and when the band veered from that track list, it was only to revisit equally dark and mysterious mid-’80s sleepers like “Tom Violence” and the particularly shimmering “Shadow of a Doubt” — with Ranaldo and Moore clanging a vaguely Japanese-sounding melody over Gordon’s noir whisper. Returning for their encore, they rocked a twin blast of Daydream Nation’s “Cross the Breeze” and “The Sprawl,” closing with a powerhouse run-through of “Death Valley ’69.” As they waltzed off, leaving their feedback to writhe around on stage, it was like seeing an old friend depart after a particularly nice weekend visit. May they never stop dropping by — and bringing friends.