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Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Massage The History

Sonic Youth at Massey Hall in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangIt’s a long way from CBGBs in New York to Massey Hall in Toronto – geographically, stylistically, even temporally. The former defined by its role as the primordial ooze from whence punk rock first emerged, the latter known largely for the legendary folk and jazz artists who graced its stage. CBGBs was a place to begin, Massey a place to arrive, but the path between the two is one that’s been trod by few acts. As of this past Tuesday night, Sonic Youth became one of them.

At first, the venue seemed a peculiar choice – putting a band whose reputation was built so heavily on dissonance in a room with the most splendid acoustics in the city. But in truth Sonic Youth became about so much more than just noise a long time ago and the complexity of their songs really were demanding of the room in which they were performed. Plus it held about the right amount of people.

I didn’t arrive in time to catch most of openers The Entrance Band, but did hear enough to find it ironic that such a trad-sounding hard rock band would be supporting such an avant-garde one. I didn’t feel like I’d missed much but if I did, I could console myself with the knowledge that they’d be back in town on August 20 at the Annex Wreck Room supporting Nebula.

I’ve already come clean about being only a casual Sonic Youth fan, but most of that enthusiasm has been built on their most recent records, say from Murray Street up to and definitely including their latest The Eternal as they’ve struck what, to my ears, is the perfect balance of atonality and melody. And having only ever seen them once live before, at Lollapalooza 2006, I was pretty excited to do so again. From the buzz in the hall, it was pretty clear everyone else was excited as well but I suspect that most were much more hardcore than I and thus exponentially more stoked. Takeaway: people were looking forward to the show.

And the long-time fans were catered with the first song, “She Is Not Alone” dating back to the band’s 1982 debut. Of course I didn’t know this song – it and most others were verified via set list – but it was a slow, hypnotic sort of dirge featuring massive guitar freak-out from Thurston Moore that many probably hoped would be a set loaded with classic material. These people would probably be disappointed. With “Sacred Trickster”, the band made it clear that they would not be partaking in any career retrospectives – they were still creative and vital and had eyes dead set forward, and would prove it by playing eleven straight songs from The Eternal.

Now these were some of the songs I was most familiar with, but that’s a pretty relative statement – I don’t find Sonic Youth to be a band I necessarily enjoy on an individual song basis, but more as a whole aural experience and that’s exactly what they delivered. A massive, dense and cinematic sonic rendering that was simultaneously aggressive, gentle, intense and detached. Seemingly incongruous guitar parts wove around each other perfectly, lunging and lurching around the alternating vocals of Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon, all of whom initially looked every bit their age but with every song, became more and more ageless – the healing power of music, I suppose. And you know, for a band that’s been around as long as they and are so unquestioningly influential, it’s remarkable how no one but no one sounds like them. Following a stunning rendering of “Massage The History”, featuring the unexpected sight of Moore on acoustic guitar, the band finally threw the old-timers a bone with a searing set closer in “Pacific Coast Highway” from Sister. The two encores were similarly steered towards older material with the exception of “What We Know”, the final Eternal track that hadn’t yet been aired. If they’d run them in order, they could have billed it as a “Don’t Look Back” show, albeit for their newest record.

I can understand if some fans felt let down by the focus on the new stuff – I would have even liked to have heard some Rather Ripped stuff, as that may be my favourite recent album of theirs – but with a catalog as broad and deep as theirs, there’s no way they could have satisfied everyone. But from a sheer performance point of view, I can’t believe anyone was actually disappointed in any way by the show they were given. Simply epic.

There’s further reviews of the show at The National Post, eye, NOW and Fazer. Check out interviews with the band at Crawdaddy, eye, The Toronto Sun and Spinner.

Photos: Sonic Youth @ Massey Hall – June 30, 2009
MP3: Sonic Youth – “Sacred Trickster”
MP3: Sonic Youth – “Incinerate”
Video: Sonic Youth – “Sacred Trickster”
Video: Sonic Youth – “Incinerate”
Video: Sonic Youth – “Death Valley 1969”
MySpace: Sonic Youth

Blurt has an interview with Dinosaur Jr, while Exclaim has assembled a career-spanning timeline of their existence. They’re at the Phoenix on September 30.

The Big Takeover has a massive five-part interview with Bob Mould. He’s at the Mod Club on October 5.

Gibson Guitars talk to Neil Young about Archives Volume One.

Wilco (The Album) was released this week and in its wake comes Wilco (the media glut). There’s interviews with Jeff Tweedy at Time, The New York Times and JAM while American Songwriter chats with Nels Cline and Paste with Cline and John Stirrat.

St Louis Today and The Colorado Springs Independent discuss Son Volt’s American Central Dust with Jay Farrar.

PopMatters considers the legacy of Uncle Tupelo.

Steve Earle talks to Cincinnati.com. He’s at Massey Hall on July 11.

Daytrotter is sharing a session with Mark Olson & Gary Louris, recorded in March at SxSW.

By : Frank Yang at 8:23 am
Category: Concert Reviews

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  1. Bruce says:

    Sounds like a great show — would have liked to be there. Might have been a little more new-album-heavy than in the past: both the Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse tours featured a greater emphasis on old favourites (Kool Thing, Silver Rocket, Teen Age Riot, Sugar Kane, Bull in the Heather, Diamond Sea, etc.) while favouring those albums slightly. Love the set list with the guitar notes to keep the roadies in line (including what, a donated guitar from J. Mascis?). By the way, one band that sounded a lot like Sonic Youth? Sloan, on Smeared (only), which teems with musical references to SY up to that point in their output. But way poppier, obviously.

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