Sonic Youth’s June 13th gig at the legendary — and doomed — punk venue CBGB on New York’s Bowery marked some notable turning points for the band. It was a sold-out party to celebrate the group’s fifteenth, rather awesome album, Rather Ripped; a kickoff for a lengthy summer tour; a celebration of twenty-five years as one of the most pioneering rock acts; and a homecoming for a band that hadn’t played the club since 1992.
But in typical fashion, the accomplished foursome — joined by Pavement bassist Mark Ibold since the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke — kept it low-key during their almost two-hour set. “Hey,” a cool Kim Gordon said to the crowd as the band took the stage. “This is the first time we’re playing new songs.” They crew then jumped into the new tune “Reena,” a terse rocker characteristic of the band’s recent output on albums like 2005’s Sonic Nurse. Thurston dedicated it to CBGB founder Hilly Kristal — and it was an appropriate tribute, especially when Gordon sang, “You keep me coming home again.” Free from bass duties thanks to Ibold, Gordon danced and shook her blond locks whenever she took the mike that night, looking eerily like Debbie Harry from back when Blondie played the club in its heyday. Contrasted with his glam wife, the lanky, mop-topped frontman Thurston Moore, looked as boyish.
For their set, the band played the new album straight through — much to the consternation of the crowd who shouted for the classics. (Others jokingly pleaded for Pavement tunes like “Gold Soundz” and “Range Life.”) Aside from an occasional flub while working out some kinks, Sonic Youth sounded muscular as they ran through all twelve intricate new compositions. Highlights included cuts that sounded like more polished versions of songs from their Sister days, including Moore’s “Incinerate” and “Sleeping Around,” while the twisted pop of Gordon’s “Jams Run Free” and the lethargic ballad “Turquoise Boy” showed range beyond the group’s notorious full-on, six-string assaults.
Because of the venue and their place in the history of New York’s downtown scene, Sonic Youth could have easily wallowed in nostalgia, cherry-picking songs for a greatest-hits blowout — something they did when they played the equally tiny club Maxwell’s, in Hoboken, New Jersey, in April 2005. But this show was about moving forward.
For their brief encore, however, the foursome (sans Ibold) decided to indulge, and performed the blistering avant-garde rocker “Shaking Hell,” off 1983’s Confusion Is Sex, and Ranaldo’s classic “Eric’s Trip.” As Ranaldo unhooked his guitar at the close, he announced, “Last song at CBGB” — as if the venue wasn’t going anywhere.