Wilbur Theater, Boston, MA
November 22, 2009
Sixteen albums and twenty-seven years after the release of their first, self-titled studio album in 1982, Sonic Youth has made a career of wowing crowds all over the world in the promotion of their newest work. Last Sunday, Sonic Youth rocked the older crowd at Boston’s strangely arranged Wilbur Theater out of its argyle socks, and proved that having appeared in a tour video named 1991: The Year Punk Broke does not prevent a band from contemporary greatness.
Opening for Sonic Youth, the much-experienced Feelies put on a rollicking show, exhibiting extended, unfiltered-yet-clean guitar sound that excited the crowd far more than the average opener. Formed in 1976, The Feelies influenced many well-known bands until they broke up in 1992 (they reunited only last year). During one of their many prolonged and enjoyable solos, I recognized suddenly how similar they sound Yo La Tengo, only to immediately realize that, properly, Yo La Tengo probably sounds a lot like The Feelies (the bands’ formations were separated by eight years but only 23 miles — the distance from Haledon to Hoboken in New Jersey). Despite the band members’ slightly out-of-sync sound, they displayed the same rock essentials that made them one of New York City’s favorite underground rock bands during their active years, prompting the crowd to demand a seldom-seen encore from the opening band.
Torturing the audience with an unusually long wait between sets, Sonic Youth arrived to heavy applause, and promptly started their signature stage drunk-walk. Thrashing around as if surrounded by a horde of bees, the band members all managed to maintain their balance while ripping out fifteen songs, ten off of their new album The Eternal. A mediocre album by Sonic Youth standards, the album is structured in a wax-wane sequence, starting with the three strongest songs, and ebbing into the slower “Antenna,” “What We Know,” and “Calming the Snake.” The album heats up again before finishing on the meandering, ten-minute epic “Massage the History.” Of course, mediocre by Sonic Youth still ranks this album among the best of the year. Performing professionally, Sonic Youth’s members all appeared surprisingly engaged — an unexpected bonus from a band that has been touring or almost 30 years.
I was surprised at the discernibility of Sonic Youth’s music; I normally relegate Sonic Youth to an “earphone band” — albums saved for extended bus trips necessitating the high volume and headphones that enable one to decipher their intricately grungy tracks. This concert — probably due in part to some talented mixing on behalf of the Sonic Youth roadies and the Wilbur’s staff — made me rethink that distinction. Regardless of the cause, Kim Gordon’s smoky voice and Thurston Moore’s guitar meshed as opposed to mashed, allowing the crowd to discern the lyrics and individual notes, particularly through the older, “classic” Sonic Youth songs the band played for their two encores, including “Cross the Breeze” and “The Sprawl.” Having never seen 500 40-year-olds rock out that hard, the concert managed to fulfill the collective longing for some late-80s nostalgia without being slowed by the weight of the history.
A Sonic Youth/Feelies combination concert is conducive to feeling rockosophical: it is easy to write about Sonic Youth’s beginnings in the “Do It Yourself” punk movement, or about their impact on rock — both indie and mainstream — in the years following their monumental releases like Goo and Daydream Nation, but to me, the most interesting aspect of this concert is less retrospective. Unlike other big names in rock, Sonic Youth continues to tour with new, solid material. By not resting on their laurels and merely playing their greatest hits, they have shown that some rock bands can, with great talent, neither burn out nor fade away. This phenomenon of aging rockstars is fascinating as it is essentially new in our generation. To view the data: The Velvet Underground broke up after writing essentially 30 songs 4 different ways; The Rolling Stones released new music in ’97 and ’05, but neither sounded any different than their earlier work, and despite wild financial success, met some critical failure; The Beatles — well, let’s just not get into that. The history of progressive rock is littered with the bookends of talented bands, the albums that you look back on and say to yourself, “this was the last album where they tried.”
Sonic Youth has somehow managed to escape this fate, and following few other luminaries — the late, great Johnny Cash comes to mind — continues to create new albums that easily compete with some of their earlier work (here, specifically, I am referring to Sonic Nurse, which kicked ass). As much as I regret not having been able to see them in 1992, I feel positive that in twenty years, the distinction between their work in the nineties and their more recent recordings will have blurred. All I can hope is that we merit more other superb albums.