Sonic Youth at Turner Hall
The band sounds as vital as ever behind the new The Eternal
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Sonic Youth’s 16-album catalog, which stretches back almost 30 years, has enough distinct variations that it’s possible to prefer just Sonic Youth, the experimental, post-punk jam band; or Sonic Youth, the edgy ’90s pop band; or Sonic Youth, the noise band. But it’s likely no one came to Turner Hall Monday night prepared for Sonic Youth, the tight-as-hell, ass-kicking rock band. Sure, the new The Eternal might clue listeners in to the more straightforward direction the band has taken—and really, it’s more a culmination of Sonic Youth’s years of experimentation, mastery of guitar, and musical meanderings—but live, those songs brought the rock like the rock was young and new.
Which, of course, it’s not. There were more than a few gray hairs in the room, plus a lot of dark-framed glasses and plaid flannel shirts—remnants of many audience members’ ’90s college years. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's partly what made the freshness of Sonic Youth’s set so remarkable. Here, in the raw, still fire-marked Turner Hall Ballroom (versus the glorious Pabst Theater, where I saw the band last time around), with less-than-perfect sound but easy access to the stage, Sonic Youth lived up to its name. It was loud and hard and breathtaking. It was the Sonic Youth show that you (and by you, I mean you yet-hip Gen-Xers) imagine you missed in early-’80s New York. Maybe Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon really haven’t aged, as they appear.
Gordon addressed the crowd at the start, saying, “It’s nice to see all these girls here—raise your hand if you’re a girl!” Then the music began against a backdrop of painted canvases and pink lights with “Sacred Trickster” and continued with nearly every song off The Eternal; the only one missing was “Thunderclap For Bobby Pyn.” Six songs in, during “Poison Arrow,” a mosh pit broke out, which, aside from seeming like the wrong thing to do at a Sonic Youth show, raised the question: How can you spend your time slam-dancing and flailing about when there’s all that awesomeness onstage? How can you take your eyes off the cool? But the moshing, stage-diving, and crowd-surfing went on, during “Anti-Orgasm”—which was, happily, even heavier than on the album—and all the way to the end.
In a lot of ways, Gordon dominated the show. She sings most of the songs on The Eternal, and therefore sang most of the songs Monday night. During Sister’s “Pacific Coast Highway,” she touched the hands of the stage-side fans like the rock star she is, and her performance on the second encore’s “Shadow Of A Doubt”—a whispery song that should be difficult live—was stunning. But the entire band was so tight and rocked out so effortlessly through the two-hour set that it’s hard not to see Sonic Youth as some impeccable, still-powerful machine.