Sonic Youth have certainly aligned themselves with some strange bedfellows since the expiration of their Geffen contract. In recent history, Thurston has curated mix tapes and in-store music for Starbucks and Anna Sui and there are intimations that the new SY release will be released by an entity that is not a record label. Interesting. This night's event was a dalliance with Converse that garnered fans a $6 door price as well as meet and greet with the bands. Provided you were wearing Converse, of course.
I'm more of a Hold Steady guy in this day and age, although the 4th of July show at Battery Park in NYC did bring my SY live show tally into the twenties. This was twenty-one and The Hold Steady as openers only sweetened the pot. The Hold Steady have recently released Stay Positive their fourth full-length for Vagrant, and it's a barn-burner. While the records are solid, THS are infamous for backing up their records with a formidable live show, whether headlining or opening.
TLA was no exception. The Hold Steady have been making big moves in recent years, even opening for The Stones in Ireland last year. This night they were only afforded a forty-minute set, which was a mild bummer, but they still came out of the gate with guns blazing. Constructive Summer opened the set as it does the new record and their devoted fanbase responded in kind. As might be expected, the crowd heavily favored the SY end of things, but the Hold Steady inspire a rabid following. I'm a member of Unified Scene, a cabal fostered of fans that go to most of the shows and many of the US kids were in from Milwaukee, Chicago and DC just for the opening set. Good times, and I guarantee the bar was happy at the end of the night.
Stay Positive figured most prominently in the set, but we were graced with dips into the back catalog, with Hot Soft Light and Chips Ahoy making appearances. Singer Craig Finn was his usual overly demonstrative self, throwing himself into the songs and feeding off the rabid fans up front. Even with the truncated set, the Hold Steady more than held their own. It was a mild shock to see how much the Sonic Youth crowd was a little taken aback by the whole thing. Or that it would degenerate into people older than my wizened ass shoving young kids for singing along at a rock show or knocking my camera out my hands. It's a long way from Threadwaxing Space, I'll tell you.
[The Hold Steady's Set List]
A quick trip to the bar and bath prefaced the SY set. Thusly refreshed, I was pretty excited to see Sonic Youth. They had played a good set on the 4th of July in NYC, offering up a good cross-section of their older stuff and later period post-O'Rourke songs. The TLA set opened with two new songs Thurston claimed had been written just the day before. Internet pundits tell me the songs may be called 'No Way' and 'Mars", but Thurston himself pointed out that the songs haven't been recorded and will no doubt change.
Post new material, we were treated to a healthy dose of Daydream Nation. It's the 25th Anniversary of said ear-shredding opus and the band has commemorated the quarter century mark by playing the record in its entirety at special events this summer. Philly saw Eric's Trip, The Sprawl and a handful of others rear their silver heads, but it was a nice mix of old and new material all night long. Looking forward and back seems to be the way of the SY walk in 2008, as even the on-stage projections ranged from the 1969 Big Sur folk festival to what I'm told is Gossip Girl footage. The video hearkens back to the mix tapes the band would play on stage back in the day to fill up time spent tuning, repairing or otherwise readying themselves for the next tune. The yesterday and today theme appeared again in the first encore of 100% and some song whose name I can't remember from Confusion Is Sex.
The two songs also served to show the two sides of the Sonic Youth: their love of pop music juxtaposed with noisy skronk freak-outs. In my old age, I'll take the hooks over white noise. My preferences aside, Sonic Youth still produce the Moby Dick of great white noise, especially now that Kim is alternating between playing third guitar and second bass with Mark Ibold. There are many frequencies covered in a Sonic Youth set, from subsonic brown sound to dog torturing shriek. It's true that more it's bang for your tinnitus-garnering dollar, but as much fun as it was twenty years ago to see Thurston take a drumstick to his guitar, these days I'd really prefer that the string-wielders leave to the stick-play to the extremely capable Mr. Shelley. In all probability, the skronkery was probably an homage to some esoteric scion of the Philly free jazz scene, but after five beers through the Hold Steady set, and the looming inevitability of the 2am Greyhound back to my Lower East Side hovel, I would prefer to have been soothed into the end of my night.
Kim Gordon proved to be an adequate cure for what ailed. She really is a vision. Once duly deafened by the sonic onslaught, it was a pleasure to see her swirl around the stage, as rapturous as she was when I first saw SY at CBs a million years ago. She and the rest of Sonic Youth have certainly aged well, both with a large amount of their dignity and credibility intact and without a single acrimonious blow-up or dramatic band conflagrations, unless I misremember Bob Berg's departure. It's kept Sonic Youth relevant in their twenty-seventh year and kept Kim a sex symbol in her fifty-fifth year. After seeing a ton of SY shows in my college and early NY days, it had been five years since I had seen my last Sonic Youth show (in Chicago, with John Cusack and his dog â€“ ooops! did I drop something?). I've seen three in the last five months and each has been better than the last. TLA had a great mix of old and new, including 2/3 of 'The Trilogy'. They seem to have got a handle on the happy medium between making their fans happy and keeping themselves artistically fulfilled. As they approach their thirtieth year, Sonic Youth are probably the only band from that era around today I can see going another thirty without becoming a caricature of themselves.
Written By Rob Browning
Photos By Cammie Heller