"Why can't we play facing this way?" Thurston Moore asked during his February 2nd acoustic, solo concert at New York's Allen Room, turning from the audience and gazing through the floor-to-ceiling glass behind his band. In fact, he did. Halfway through "Ono Soul," from his 1995 album Psychic Hearts, the Sonic Youth guitarist swung around toward the winter's-night view across Central Park, holding his instrument over his head, then aiming it at his small amp like a divining rod, drawing out a broad drone of distortion.
Later, in "Orchard Street," from Moore's recent, first-rate solo record, Demolished Thoughts (Matador), he and his band – harpist Mary Lattimore, violinist Samara Lubelski, guitarist Keith Wood from the avant-folk project Hush Arbors and drummer John Moloney from the Massachusetts improvising troupe Sunburned Hand of the Man – broke out of a wistful folk-rock mood into a rapid-strumming seizure that sounded like an unplugged chunk from one of Glenn Branca's guitar-army symphonies. It was at once a muted and grand noise, perfect for both a space not used to bedlam and Moore's reflection, in the song's lyrics and his pensive singing, on a distant New York of scrappy living, extreme art and big dreams.
No Wave Memories
Moore's performance was part of Lincoln Center's 2012 season of American Songbook concerts, and he dressed for the occasion, up to a point: jacket and tie, plus powder-blue sneakers. Lanky and still boyish-looking at 53, the guitarist took the opportunity to showcase his poems, reading one in front of every song and explaining that he first came to New York in early 1977 to be a writer but soon discovered "all the poets were going to CBGB and Max's anyway." Ghosts of electricity ran through Moore's verse, with references to the cassette underground, No Wave lioness Lydia Lunch and Lou Reed watching a Ramones gig ("Best band in the world/He knows").
The music was also rife with spirits. Lattimore's plucking of harp strings was a softer, brighter variation on Sonic Youth's stabbing electric-guitar harmonics; Lubelski's sustained notes evoked amp hum and the way John Cale's viola hovered like suspense and menace through the tumult of the Velvet Underground. Moore's jaunty riff on "Circulation" had a Sonic Youth kick; so did the tempo change, up to a jangling staccato-chord frenzy like a campfire freakout on "Expressway to Yr. Skull."
There was other history floating in the long ring of Moore and Wood's guitars: the eccentric rhythms and modal chord patterns of the acid-era David Crosby and the progressive British folk of Roy Harper. In "Nina Loy," Moore picked a jolting Sonic-Youth-like figure dosed, in its 12-string resonance, with the shamanistic psychedelia of the late guitarist Robbie Basho. And while he may not appreciate the comparison, I was struck – at the show and as I listened to Demolished Thoughts that afternoon – by how much the blend of acoustic guitars and Moore's singing, a grainy whisper in this setting, reminded me of Roger Waters in ballad mode on Pink Floyd's Ummagumma and Meddle.
"Noise controls, barely," Moore recited in his encore poem. Quiet, he's found, has its own rebellious authority.
The Next Wave
Unmentioned during the evening: the fate of Sonic Youth. He and bassist Kim Gordon separated last year, after 24 years of marriage. Moore did not play any of his compositions for the band in this show. But before the music started, he sent birthday wishes to Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who was in the audience. Notably, Moore referred to him as "my bandmate," suggesting the present tense is still in effect. Note: On March 21st, Ranaldo releases a superb new solo album of electric-band rock and songs, Between the Times and the Tides (Matador).
As for his own next step, Moore left us with a joke. "This acoustic guitar stuff is history," he cracked, before singing "Queen Bee and Her Pals" from Psychic Hearts. "After this tour, the woodchipper." There was a pause and grin. "Not really."