“We like (ah) repetition”, sang Mark.E.Smith and concisely stated both the manifesto and the limitation, the problem and the solution, for a generation of musicians. Even a group as consistently addicted to reinvention as Sonic Youth operate within the constraints of this dictum.
Raiding an eclectic grab bag of influences from their contemporaries, the detuned maximal/minimal symphonic arcs of Glenn Branca, the barrage of the Swans, the guitar fetishism of The band of Susans, as well as appropriations of tone and technique from both all-American Rock, punk and fields far to the left of anything that might be reasonably considered popular music, Sonic Youth emerged pre-eminent among the experimentalism of their No Wave comrades.
Over their 26 year career, both as Sonic Youth and in the context of innumerable collaborations, side projects and self-financed record labels, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Lee Renaldo have become bench-marks for musicians willing to take risks. At the same time their formula has become progressively more refined and melodic, the song structures tighter. Layered arpeggios building anthemically to dissonant, cathartic resolutions. Light and shade.
Repetition, the transcendental self-perpetuating no-mind of the riff, is a constant referent but repetiveness is avoided neatly by each taking turns on vocal duties and relentless experimentation with tunings and texture.
I approached Wednesday’s gig at Columbiahalle with some trepidation. So much ink has been spilt over Sonic Youth through the years that the opportunity to review them performing their seminal 1988 double album Daydream Nation in its entirety seemed in some ways a poison chalice. They are one of my favourite bands but the recently popular trend of recreating old albums in a live setting leaves me ambivalent. On the one hand the Stooges recreation of Fun House a few years back in London was one of the most powerful gigs I have ever seen (Iggy had such a good time that the band launched into two thirds of Raw Power as an encore), on the other Lou Reed’s decision to recreate Berlin, in Berlin, at the Tempodrom, seemed a step too far in the direction of The Dark Side of The Moon!
It is an unsettling feeling to find yourself listening to an album knowing that the set list of a concert you are about to see will conform to its track listing. With C.D sales declining month on month and the revenue generated by concerts playing an ever important role in financing a musical career, the spectre of the once great pandering to the record collector’s fetish for reissues of expanded editions and luxuriously packaged box sets waits at the wings of the stage.
We arrived as the band were already into their stride with The Sprawl, Moore already attacking his Jazzmaster with a drumstick. The packed venue meant that there was little chance of getting any closer to the stage so we stationed ourselves about 50 metres from the front.
The Columbiahalle, whilst by no means an enormodrome, is not blessed with the kindest of sightlines or much atmosphere but despite this and the average sound, it was clear that the band had the audience’s undivided attention for more or less the entirety of their two hour set.
A slow motion video projection in bleached colour of smoke and skulls dissolved into the silhouettes of coy carp and grainy hand held footage, providing an elegantly understated backdrop for the band.
Kicking it up a gear for Eric’s Trip and Total Trash it was evident that Sonic Youth remain not just an incredibly tight musical unit but clearly enjoy playing together. Their enthusiasm was infectious and spread in waves toward the back of the hall but before it could ignite the rapt but undemonstrative crowd this far back the energy subsided a little with the sub-Swell Maps Musique concrète of Providence which formed a natural interval, allowing the Youth to take a well earned break. Before they returned to perform Candle I counted no less than twenty nine guitars racked on either side of the stage!
Moore, briefly resembling a younger, hipper, Bill Gates introduced the last three songs on the album which were to be played continuously. The band dived into Rain King then emerged into Gordon’s nauseously ambivalent account of sexual attraction/repulsion, Kissability, before the ecstatic fifteen minute finale of Trilogy, by which point the voluble shrieking and whistling of our neighbours threatened immanent tinnitus.
Joined by Mark Ibold for the five song encore, the Youth ripped through Incinerator to an ecstatic response from the crowd, Kim Gordon dancing like a mad dervish. Bull in the heather followed with Steve Shelley’s drumming taking the bands sound almost towards drum and bass territory. The final number found Moore quietly enunciating the banal Q&A of an interview, “What time are you guys on tonight? Where are you playing next?” and finally ringing extraordinary pathos from the line, “Which comes first, the music, or the words?”
Despite the fact that the performance was undoubtedly wholly committed and impassioned I was not entirely convinced that for a band for whom reinvention (albeit within the constraints of anthemic out-rock) has remained the only constant over the years, that the decision to revisit and thus freeze frame a moment of their development was entirely vindicated. I could never entirely shake the impression that this was a showcase, the performance of a score. To quote the words of a friend, “They kiss my ass when I live in the past.”
As we left the venue a smiling fan handed over a wad of Euros for a vinyl reissue of Goo, lovingly repacked in a heavy cardboard box and no doubt accompanied by a lavishly illustrated booklet. The deluxe edition of Daydream Nation follows shortly and both, along with Dirty, will, no doubt, be turning up on Ebay soon.