Thursday, September 20, 2007

Just like a (Day)dream


In September 2004, I saw Sonic Youth play their only UK show of the year in support of latest album Sonic Nurse across London at the Brixton Academy. It turned out to be quite a gig: "I've seen them play 'Teen Age Riot' AND 'Expressway To Yr Skull' ON THE SAME NIGHT. I can die happy".

But when I discovered that almost three years on to the day they'd not only be playing 'Teen Age Riot' again but every single song which follows it on their 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation, in order, as part of the Don't Look Back gig series, I knew I certainly wouldn't die happy if I missed it. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tickets for the first date, the Thursday, sold out almost immediately; the booking office was out of Friday tickets practically as soon as they'd been announced; but I made damn sure one of those for the Saturday night finale of what blossomed into a three day Camden Roundhouse residency was mine.

And now the night's finally here, it's 9pm and I'm marvelling at the stunning performance space that is the Roundhouse's main auditorium. And then the lights dim, the enormous reproduction of Gerhard Richter's candle image on the drape at the back of the stage flickers and Thurston, Kim, Lee and Steve walk on.

What's it like knowing what's coming next? Boringly predictable? No. It's the purest bliss imaginable - even with the remnants of a vicious hangover lurking in the recesses of my head.

Nearly every Sonic Youth album, consistently high quality though they invariably are, has a stand-out track - one that immediately captivates and seduces the imagination, the spirit, the heart; one that you just know is a classic even as it leaves your speakers for the very first time. And of all the stand-out tracks of all the 15-odd Sonic Youth albums to date, Daydream Nation's opening song 'Teen Age Riot' is the undisputed daddy. It's fucking electric from lulling start to wailing finish, when Moore indulges in enthusiastic guitar-amp frottage and whips his strings with a strap like a shaggy-haired art-rock dominatrix before crossing necks with Ranaldo's guitar in a feedback duel to the death.

And that's just the first song.

So, what do I actually learn about an album that I've played almost as many times as I've had hot dinners? Well, 'Cross The Breeze', 'Hey Joni' and the closing 'Trilogy' all rock harder live than even I'd imagined; the guitars and drums - rather light and tinny on record - are given the oomph they deserve by the Roundhouse's PA and acoustics. Only the album's third track 'The Sprawl' could be considered a disappointment tonight, and then only at a very big push. I'd also never fully appreciated quite how many of the songs begin with stout riffs, melody and a strong sense of direction before drifting (or perhaps daydreaming?) off into passages of beautiful abstraction, only then to swim back into pinsharp focus towards the end.

Not a word is spoken between songs. They may have played the whole album through a handful of times in recent days and weeks, but there'll be a few tracks that never even rattled the amps when they were touring it back in the late '80s - hence the sheets of A4 detailing tunings, chords and lyrics affixed to the floor for some songs.

The last note of 'Eliminator Jr' having rung out, followed by tremendous applause and a brief backstage breather, it's a different story. When they emerge for an encore, Moore can't stop talking. Ever the fanboy - even at the age of 49 (though you wouldn't believe it to look at him) - with a rich sense of music history, he enthuses about The Ramones' debut UK performance at the Roundhouse in July 1976 sandwiched between The Flamin' Groovies and The Stranglers, and how legend has it the penniless and desperate-to-attend John Lydon and Joe Strummer were hauled in by the band through the dressing room window: "There IS no fucking window now".

Later he talks about being in a second-hand bookshop earlier in the day and stumbling across a programme from the 1971 run of Andy Warhol's play 'Pork', also at the Roundhouse, which apparently inspired a young David Bowie to turn his back on hippie folk and become a glam rock convert.

Perhaps inevitably, they use the encore to play songs from their most recent album, last year's Rather Ripped. It could be an anti-climax, but what's apparent from the likes of 'Pink Steam' and 'Incinerate' is that the latest material stands up very well in comparison with the old, brilliant in its own right - poppier, punchier and evidence that they're still far from being a spent force.

With the addition of ex-Pavement man Mark Ibold on bass, Kim is unencumbered by an instrument for 'What A Waste' and 'Jams Run Free', liberated to play the role of frontwoman and focal point which she seems to relish, shimmying and stalking the stage and even at one point twirling in time to the music for so long that I feel dizzy myself.

'Or' is last - or so we think. No sooner have the quintet left the stage for a second time than roadies rush on to assemble another drumkit, so Chris Corsano can join our returning heroes for one final magical rendition of 'Expressway To Yr Skull' - quite probably second only to 'Teen Age Riot' in the Sonic Youth stand-out tracks stakes, and, having been released in 1986, two years older than Daydream Nation itself - which climaxes and quietens, climaxes and quietens to perfection.

December be damned - I might as well just declare it the #1 SWSL Live Performance Of 2007 here and now, mightn't I?


Del said...

Jealous. But I did see the Slint concert where they did Spiderland in it's entirety, which was breathtaking.

Ben said...

Yes, would have rather liked to have been there for that one, I have to say.

You tempted by Sebadoh doing Bubble & Squeak? The first Don't Look Back gig in the UK to be announced for next year.

Will said...

"a once-in-a-lifetime experience" - unless you went to all three nights, hahaahaa.

(I didn't: the Friday was also pretty good though.)

Del said...

I don't know the album desperately well, (for shame!) but I can get to know it, certainly. Let me know if you fancy meeting up for it!

Ben said...

Will: Yes, once-in-a-lifetime if you don't live in London! What I would have given to have gone more than once...

Del: Neither do I, actually. The oldest one I've got is Bakesale. Do like a bit of Sebadoh, though - two of my favourite songs from the new Dino Jr album are the two Lou ones. The gig's a week night, which is difficult too - that's partly what made Sonic Youth playing on a Saturday night so irresistible...