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 Sun. 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 lines.

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.