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Live Review: Sonic Youth

The Palladium, Worcester, Mass., June 6, 1998

The night began early — dinner time by weekend standards, with a
packed house crowding into an ornate old theater to bear witness to
Sean Lennon’s coming-out party as one of two opening acts for Sonic
Youth (they also invited former Television guitarist Tom Verlaine
to the party). It ended three and a half hours later, with Sonic
Youth assaulting the night with the roiling, apocalyptic maelstrom
“Death Valley 69” that was at once terrifying and beautiful. It was
the summit of an evening of extremes — pop and punk; darkness and
light; promise and realization.

Lennon, whose four-piece touring band included his girlfriend
and Cibo Matto keyboardist Yuka Honda, seemed touched by the early,
attentive audience — and at home in front of it — as he performed
a half-hour’s worth of material drawn from his debut, Into The
. Even though the twenty-two-year-old Lennon’s mother, Yoko
Ono, had more in common aesthetically with the evening’s headliner
(and how many of us can make *that* claim about our moms?), the
live setting suited Lennon’s material well, opening the songs up to
possibilities not quite realized on disc. “Mystery Juice” and
“Spaceship,” for example, sounded edgier, more fleshed-out and far
more dynamic, with Lennon’s high, keening voice offset by his
band’s creamy harmonies and Honda’s loopy, swirling synth

While his approach may sometimes recall another onetime
sensation signed to the Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label, Ben Lee,
Lennon cleverly incorporated bits of space-age cocktail pop and
fanciful psychedelia into his bag of cotton-candy confections.
“Thanks, and have fun with the Sonics,” Lennon quipped brightly as
he departed after his set, making the prospect of what was to come
sound almost quaint.

Fifteen years after they exhorted us to “Kill Yr. Idols” and
then stuck around to make sure we did it right, underground rock’s
most enduring terrorists of the aural avant-garde delivered a
masterful performance Saturday that fused glistening, ravishingly
textured soundscapes with gilded ruminations on wildflower souls
and hits of sunshine for dead poets. Ignoring errant, irritating
shouts for “Expressway To Yr. Skull,” “Teen Age Riot,” and, uh,
“Freebird,” Sonic Youth eschewed most of those golden oldies and
chose instead to concentrate almost entirely on material from their
new album, A Thousand Leaves. What the audience heard was
a moodier, somewhat more subdued — but no less powerful — outfit
exploring shimmering new terrain and stretching beyond both the
confines of its catalog and the expectations of its audience.

The band — the husband/wife team of guitarist Thurston Moore
and bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon; guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer
Steve Shelley — opened the show with the instrumental “Anagram,” a
delicate, dissonant tapestry of sound that surged to a rushing,
majestic climax before receding again, piece by piece, until there
was nothing left but the principals standing there, Moore drawling
a sly thanks to the audience “for coming to beautiful downtown
Worcester.” And then, with a glance at the silvery disco ball
hanging high overhead, the Sonics were off on a new adventure,
plunging into the new disc with brief stops along the way to plumb
the past (“Shadow of A Doubt” and the aforementioned waking
nightmare of “Death Valley 69”).

The angular cat-gut howl and feedback-screech of Gordon’s
“Female Mechanic Now On Duty” gave way to Ranaldo’s wandering,
wondering epic “Karen Koltrane,” before volleying back again to
another Gordon number with a great title and a semi-sweet nursery
rhyme melody, “French Tickler.”

Then came the magnificent melancholy roar of “Wildflower Soul,”
a meditation on youth and age set to the shuddering sprawl of
guitars, with Shelley’s ride cymbal gliding along the rim of the
song. That moment, with the band bathed in a glittery universe of
crimson and silver, made elegantly real the lyric Moore had sung
only minutes before, on “Sunday.” It really was “the perfect ending
to a perfect day.” Even without a teenage riot.


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