Katy and I went with my step-brother, Dan, and our friend, Brandon Briscoe, to see a Sonic Youth concert Saturday night (7/18/09) at The Uptown Theater. Although they certainly did not disappoint with their musical performance (especially in song choices that eschewed many predictable fan favorites), I was impressed with other aspects that added almost as much enjoyment to my experience as the loud rock and roll itself.
I have to confess that it was my first Sonic Youth show. I’m no slacker; I have done the research. I know that Kim Gordon has historically dressed like a provocative, punk-informed girl attending Warhol’s parties with The Velvet Underground. (Which, come to think of it, is pretty much how Sonic Youth sounds.) When the band took the stage, she sported a short, silver dress. Brandon, who had also seen the old concert pictures and films, immediately commented, “She’s still feisty.”
That she was.
In watching and listening to the old bootlegs, it’s clear that the sound at their concerts was not always as impressive as on studio recordings. Resembling a combination of a washing machine and a dentist drill with frantic drumming, bootlegs like Gila Monster Jamboree are only for the most hardcore fans. I know it’s not fair to compare the band in 2009 to where it was at 24 years ago, but it is the same group of people. Moderate success and a consistent live show have enabled it to hire excellent sound men. The guitars were cleanly separated, and the drums sounded beautiful. (In fact, the most impressive aspect of their live sound was the drums. They were not dominating, but they drove the band’s sound. The overhead mic’s even picked up nuances like Steve’s shaker sticks.) And because because Steve doesn’t lay into the ride and crash cymbals all night, Thurston and Lee can listen better and play with or off of each other.
I was also impressed by the light show. I really know nothing about lighting, except that I know when it works well. I know they’re run by computer programs nowadays, but the programs allowed for improvisation, as necessitated by a band like Sonic Youth that thrives on extended jams. There were long, improvised sections, like in the bridge to “Silver Rocket” when lights died down but the director snapped them back on to cue as the band brought the song back up. There were strobe lights and multicolored lights used judiciously that further justified the ticket prices (which were actually fairly reasonable, unlike the additional Ticketmaster fees).
I think what has always intrigued me and attracted me to Sonic Youth is the band’s image. It, especially Kim, projects a disinterested, almost pouty feeling that contributes to the artistic statement it has made for almost thirty years. The band seems to have held onto what Lou Reed only managed to grasp for a few years–an austere, off-putting, New York art student aesthetic. It is what the band has always done, and that is why I liked the concert so much. It was like meeting an old friend and realizing he hasn’t really changed that much in the ten years since you saw him last.