Sonic Youth / July 3, 2009 / New York (United Palace Theatre)
After returning to its indie label roots with the June release of "The Eternal," Sonic Youth rang in Independence Day weekend in the same city where it began causing an alt-rock ruckus more than 30 years ago. This time, the quintessential downtown band took the party uptown to the gorgeously ornate United Palace Theater in New York's Washington Heights. The trip to 175th St. was a little out of the way for most of the 3,000 flannel-clad fans that made the trek, but the band's razor sharp performance of new tunes and rarely heard classics made it worth the long ride on the A train.
In typical Sonic Youth fashion, the show kicked off with a clamoring, dissonant bang. Wearing a sparkly silver dress and a colder-than-ice stare that would threaten punk princesses a third her age, 56-year-old Kim Gordon howled her way through a frenzied rendition of "Sacred Trickster," her delivery focused more on oomph and attitude than on actual melody. As she whirled and wailed, dueling axemen Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo unsettled the air with intertwining, minor-key guitar textures that were elevated by the Palace's reverberating acoustics. From the there, the five-member band (rounded out by drummer Steve Shelley and new full-time bassist Mark Ibold) tore into a 17-song set that focused mostly on their acclaimed new album.
Sonic Youth's renewed vigor was apparent on restrained tunes like the sing-along "Leaky Lifeboat," and the hypnotic "Walkin Blue," both of which highlighted the band's recent experiments with vocal harmonies. But, as always, the show's most remarkable moments came during teeth-rattling rockers like "Calming the Snake" and "Anti-Orgasm," one of several songs where the group drifted into extended jams of tuneless, discordant chaos that prompted one audience member to scream, "Sonic Youth is back!" from the upper deck.
Though long-time fans were appreciative of the new material, the set's older, more obscure gems -- such as 1986's "Tom Violence," 1987's "Catholic Block" and 1983's "The World Looks Red" -- brought the biggest applause from the rafters. Those songs also served to ignite Ranaldo and Moore, who remain two of indie rock's most remarkable showmen as well as the most innovative guitarists. Moore's exuberance grew more physical as the set went on: the lanky frontman rolled on the floor, attacked his strings with drum sticks, and hurled himself at monitors, at one point knocking over a stage lamp. "You should start nailing that shit down," he joked, as stage techs rushed to reassemble a lighting rig between songs.
Still, the show had yet to reach the fever pitch that would come with the encores. After fans rushed the stage at Moore's insistence ("Come on, there's plenty of room down here. Get closer!" he coaxed), the band delivered a fierce one-two punch of "What We Know" (one of the strongest cuts on "Eternal") and '87's "Pacific Coast Highway." A second encore dipped deeper into the band's catalog, with the atonal intensity of '83's "Brother James" and '85's "Death Valley '69" shattering any decorum left on the stage and in the crowd. The band might be three-decades deep, and its members all circling middle age, but this uptown gig proved that the Youth can still cause a teenage riot when duty calls.
Here is Sonic Youth's setlist:
"Calming the Snake"
"Malibu Gas Station"
"World Looks Red"
"What We Know"
"Pacific Coast Highway"
"Death Valley '69"