Sonic Youth doesn't make music for the masses. And, really, who can blame them? By remaining true to their art-rock roots without sticking to one specific sound, New York's godfathers of guitar-noise have achieved a position of prominence in rock usually reserved for bands that sell many times more records.
That stance has led the Youth to pursue truly daring, if sometimes bizarre tangents, creating music that has polarized audiences. And even though popular acclaim has eluded the group to such a degree that it has become a part of the band's identity and appeal, Sonic Youth are widely regarded as artists' artists, the credibility measuring stick by which alternative and independent bands are judged.
Thursday night at the Anchorage, a performance space in the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, the band opened a summer concert series that includes shows by such art-school acts as DJ Spooky and Praxis with an hour-long set of instrumentals that seemed to blur into one another. In a setting geared more toward performance art than rock theatrics, the group indulged its experimental side with mostly new material that ran the spectrum from tender to terrifying.
Taking the stage with nary a word or glance shared between members, Sonic Youth immediately launched into a hypnotic 11-minute song with a mantra-riff fusion that had the audience swaying like hippies in a post-alt-rock Daydream Nation. A little later, as the flat snap of Steve Shelley's snare harkened back to such Youth rockers as "Pacific Coast Highway" and "Mote," guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore exchanged slight nods before shredding the song with alternating waves of feedback that seemed to bounce off the room's 50-foot, barrel-vaulted ceiling.
For the last song, Moore finally brought out a microphone from the side of the stage, if only to thank the audience and mumble through a few indecipherable couplets. Meanwhile, Ranaldo, who stood grounded to the same spot for most of the evening, dropped to one knee to better wrench his guitar strings, while bassist Kim Gordon continued her on-again, off-again pogoing.
Although some might have expected a preview of more song-oriented material that will appear on the band's next album, the show instead demonstrated how well Sonic Youth has mastered the free-form improvising pioneered by acts like Sun Ra and the MC5. Much of what they played seemed a firm rededication to the more visceral musical explorations on "Daydream Nation."