Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The perfect storm


Set-list: 'I Love You Golden Blue' / 'Stones' / 'Pattern Recognition' / 'Unmade Bed' / 'Eric's Trip' / 'Teenage Riot' / 'New Hampshire' / 'Mariah Carey And The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream' / 'Paper Cup Exit' / 'Dude Ranch Nurse' / 'Brother James' // 'Pacific Coast Highway' / 'Expressway To Yr Skull'

I don't know who the support acts were, and I don't care - this was all about the main act, the main event: Sonic Youth.

I've seen them every couple of years since 1996, and on this occasion only just got my ticket in time, having to sit in the balcony not out of choice but out of necessity. Aside from an appearance at All Tomorrow's Parties in the spring, this is their first show in the UK since 2002, and the only UK show of a whistlestop European tour.

As such, it feels like something of a pilgrimage. Some might go from all over the world to Mecca in search of inner peace and enlightenment and to be closer to their god, while us Sonic Youth fans are drawn from all over Britain to the Brixton Academy on a warm evening in early September to marvel at the huge red capital letters proclaiming the appearance of our heroes. And, yes, they are heroes.

Shortly after 9pm the lights go down and we’re treated to a brilliant set that sees them coaxing the very best out of the new material from this year’s Sonic Nurse LP (perhaps only ‘Mariah Carey…’ – surprisingly – is slightly underwhelming) whilst also playing some of their most legendary trump cards. When it comes to creating beautifully textured discord and honing in on the exact point that high-brow conceptual art meets dirty noisy punk thrills, there’s simply no-one out there to touch them, more than twenty years after they took their first steps as a band.

2002's Murray Street LP saw Jim O'Rourke become a permanent member of the band, but, although he's fitted in seamlessly, augmenting what was an already potent force, he'll always be on the periphery of the core four.

No-one sits hunched in intense concentration over a drumkit quite like Steve Shelley.

No-one can elegantly juggle a guitar quite like Lee Ranaldo.

Kim Gordon looks stunning, as ever, in a blue dress and savage high heels which, when she starts doing her trademark hop, make me want to shout, "Be careful, you'll turn your ankle!" She might not be as vocal as on previous occasions, but when, during 'Pacific Coast Highway' - an unsettling blend of seduction and threat - she prowls around the front of the stage, her status as one of the most iconic women in rock is beyond doubt.

But the star of the show has to be Thurston Moore, an art-punk legend dressed up as Bill or Ted. Even in middle age he's a goofy teenager getting to do what he's always dreamt of and loving every minute of it, tossing that unchanging mane with the same enthusiastic abandon of youth. "The last time we were here was about ten years ago. Those were the days, baby!" Barely fifteen minutes into the set and he's humping his guitar on top of the enormous speaker stacks as 'Pattern Recognition', confirmed tonight as a modern classic in the same mould as 'The Empty Page', drifts away into feedback. "Who's this lady Jordan?", he asks, puzzled, before claiming to have seen Ms Price's face on the cover of every magazine ("Time, Newsweek, The Wire") upon arrival in Britain and dedicating 'Brother James' (or was it 'Shaking Hell'?) to her.

The evening may culminate with some tremendously self-indulgent dicking about - Thurston dangles things in front of his amp for effect, Jim fetches an accordion, a couple of members of one of the support acts appear with an inflatable guitar and Kim leaves the boys to it before Thurston literally pulls the plug on himself with glee as disgruntled stage managers lurk in the wings - but all that can be forgiven.

Likewise the lack of anything from the seven albums preceding Sonic Nurse. After all, if I wanted to hear my ultimate Sonic Youth set it'd last for days - EVERYTHING (apart, perhaps, from the odd track from A Thousand Leaves) at least twice.

And why can all that be forgiven? Just take a look at the set-list. I've seen them play 'Teenage Riot' AND 'Expressway To Yr Skull' ON THE SAME NIGHT. I can die happy.

There's life in the old dogs yet, despite what some might have said in haste...

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