At around 7:45 p.m., sunglasses-clad Thurston Moore strode onstage to thunderous cheers. Deadpan, the lanky Sonic Youth vocalist/guitarist said, "Hi, we're the Sonic Youth. We're going to start things off with a little love song called 'No Way.'" Cue a heavy, punkish version of the tenth track from the band's new album, The Eternal.
And thus began one of the best concerts in St. Louis so far this year. Thanks in no small part to perfect weather, a healthy-sized crowd gathered underneath the Gateway Arch for the free Sonic Youth show, the first Live on the Levee concert this year.
The setlist drew mostly from Eternal; only "Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)" wasn't played. These live versions pulverized the studio versions -- and then kicked them again in the stomach for good measure. "What We Know" in particular absolutely slayed, thanks to Steve Shelley's thundering-hooves drums and Moore's scrubbing guitar corrosion. So did the two-minute garage-rock fury "Sacred Trickster" - a Kim Gordon lead vocal that featured her dancing around playfully - and "Poison Arrow," which Moore prefaced by saying it was "another love song."
Guitarist Lee Ranaldo also had plenty of chances to assume lead vocals, including on "Walkin Blue," which felt like a down-home bluesy jam (albeit one filtered through the Sonic Youth Textured-Noise Sieve). "Antenna" was another highlight - a softer slow-burn full of melancholic decay and antiquated loneliness that ended with some nifty Moore guitar effects. Only the main set-ending meander "Massage the History" - which featured Moore on a stool playing acoustic guitar, coffeehouse-style - dragged down the momentum.
And while it doesn't really matter what Sonic Youth plays, it was a treat to hear a thrashing version of Daydream Nation's "Hey Joni," a Ranaldo vocal track full of corrugated riffs, and Sister's noise-jolt "Stereo Sanctity." (Seriously, both songs are over twenty years old, and they sound as through they were recorded yesterday.) That's a testament to the age-defying nature of Sonic Youth's catalog. It's hard to describe the show, because it sounded and looked just like, well, Sonic Youth.
Moore shook his shaggy hair around and bopped around on the stage like a happy Muppet. The professor-like Ranaldo anchored stage right, deep in concentration as he scrawled out needling guitar lines and sculpted effects-laden soundscapes. Gordon sang-spoke in her inimitable coo - as sex-kittenish as it is punk-rock snarl - and rocked the fuck out. Shelley is an astoundingly good drummer, one who's ferocious and inventive in an understated way. (In fact, his roots as a drummer for punk bands such as the Crucifucks seemed more evident last night.) And the addition of Pavement bassist Mark Ibold has obviously given Sonic Youth a jolt of energy and flexibility, by freeing up Gordon to play bass or guitar, depending on the song.
In fact, it feels like Sonic Youth has only become more punk and more ferocious as its career has progressed. The first encore underscored this. Ranaldo took a violin bow to his guitar, signaling the start of Daydream Nation's aptly named ambient thunderclap "The Sprawl." That was followed by Nation's tangled punk speedball "'Cross the Breeze," on which Gordon wailed desperately.
She sounded similarly emotional on the second encore's fantastic "Shadow of a Doubt" - which was reinvented from the studio version; instead of ghostly desire, her delivery came from a place of nostalgic regret. And then the band launched into the horror-noir "Death Valley '69." Like a car with no brakes careening down a cliff while dodging a rockslide, the song progressed in a fury of lights, jagged guitars and lightning-speed rhythms.
The only strange part of the show happened as this song ended. As if rousing the rest of the band for some mischief, Moore yelled, "Feedback until the fireworks start!" He stomped on his pedalboard and even briefly jumped offstage, while Ranaldo spun his guitar around his head as if imitating an airplane. The feedback fought a mighty battle, but unfortunately a canned soundtrack of blaring Top 40 music - specifically, Finger Eleven's "Paralyzer" - began seconds after the fireworks did, thus drowning out the noise. Ranaldo stayed onstage for a bit manipulating things - I could hear it - but the band was effectively cut off. It was a bizarre and abrupt ending to an otherwise perfect show.
Awesome Color - a band signed to Moore's Ecstatic Peace label - opened with a solid (but short) set of scuzzy stoner-punk blasts. The band also gave a shout-out to underground venue Spooky Action Palace.
Critic's Notebook: The number of parents who brought their kids down to see the show warmed my heart. The tiny tots dancing to Sonic Youth were even more precious.
The band also seemed energized by the outdoor environment. At one point, Moore asked, "Hey, is it always so gorgeous here? We're looking for some relocation. Is there any room in that thing?" And then he gestured at the Arch.
Also, really, this review could just have been, "Sonic Youth totally ruled. The end."
Personal Bias: Best Sonic Youth show I've ever seen, hands down. (This was time number four.)
"Calming the Snake"
"Malibu Gas Station"
"What We Know"
"Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)"
"Massage the History"
"White Cross" (was to be played, apparently, according to official setlist)
Encore One "The Sprawl" "'Cross the Breeze"
Encore Two: "Shadow of a Doubt" "Death Valley '69"