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Sonic Youth Clear the Air at Paris Show

Seminal Experimental Rockers Unleash the Classics

March 25, 1999 12:00 AM ET

It's a rainy winter night in Paris. Inside MutualitT, a theater in the fifth arrondissement, Sonic Youth are finishing up the last song of their sold-out show.

Lee Ranaldo, drags his guitar across the floor, wrenching strings. Thurston Moore, a tower of rangy limbs, plays his guitar with a drumstick, amplified by a My First Sony toy microphone. Kim Gordon, in a multi-layered white dress with a ragged hem, coaxes weird sounds out of her pedals and whispers echoey poetry into her microphone. Drummer Steve Shelley has exited stage left to leave his fellow band members to their introspective experimentation. Nothing new from the band who branded electric noise music while many in the audience were still suckling the tTtTs of their maman.

But for those who have been following Sonic Youth's tours of past years, this one was unusual. Not for the blend of space-age, psychedelic, art-core that SY fans are accustomed to, since they surely delivered that. It was unusual in that Sonic Youth treated the 2,500-odd Parisians that filled the balconies and throbbed in unison to a stroll down memory lane.

With a line-up that included "hit" songs from nearly every one of their albums since 1985, including the most recent, A Thousand Leaves, Sonic Youth delivered material, some more than ten years old, with a furious elegance.

"She Is Not Alone", the show's opener, was an indication of the scope that SY covered in their fourteen-song set. A quiet, ethereal song with the title comprising its only lyrics, came from SY's first recorded album, 1982's live Sonic Youth. Almost a lullaby, the song set the show's tone with its liquid, dreamy chant. Thurston Moore repeated the anguished lyrics in a fitting stance, head bowed into his mic and face hidden beneath his trademark shaggy hair.

The show included other early songs from the Eighties: "Death Valley '69" from the 1985 Bad Moon Rising LP, and a cover of "Blonde Redhead" by Arto Lindsey's Eighties band DNA, a nod to that band's roots in the NYC No Wave scene.

The light show, true to the band's keen visual interests, punctuated the night's seamless reverie and lent a cinematic element to the experience. During "Wildflower," a song from A Thousand Leaves, the silhouette of Kim Gordon, transformed by light projections, appeared first red, then blue, the colors changing along with the chord progression. Her vocals, sometimes singing/talking breathily, sometimes hard and screeching, commanded the song's rapid dynamics.

Lee Ranaldo sang a pretty "Karen Koltrane" and a soulful "Hoarfrost," the latter of which brought the show to near rapture. Songs such as the crowd-pleaser "Teenage Riot" (Daydream Nation), a seductive but cold "Shadow of a Doubt" (Evol) sung by Gordon, a spaced-out "Sugar Cane" (Dirty), "Schizophrenia" (Sister) and "Expressway To Yr. Skull" (Evol) gave even the most cursory fan a familiar sound to thrash and sway to. Gordon's driving bass and Shelley's precise drumming formed the rhythmic basis of most compositions while the layered sounds issuing forth from Moore and Ranaldo's guitars reverberated, at times, like machines on the blink.

The continued relevancy of SY is a sign not only of their royal position in the independent rock canon, but to the lasting power of their music. The Paris show, a hallucinatory journey through much of the band's past and present, proves that even as mature artists the band's explorations remain youthful.

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