Live: Sonic Youth at the Wiltern Theatre
Unruly sonic storms still form the heart of the veteran band's live show, even as it focuses on the present rather than the influential albums of its youth.
Sonic Youth has traveled far with the sounds of beauty and noise, stretching out its repertoire to include no-wave, alt-rock and wild experiments with the music of John Cage. After nearly three decades together, the band's open-ended approach is essentially unchanged and uncompromised, fueled on harmonic intensity not pop convention.
At the Wiltern Theatre on Saturday, Sonic Youth again harnessed a storm of melody and feedback, opening its 90-minute performance with the hurried guitar riffs of "No Way," as singer-guitarist Thurston Moore sang urgently of pain and temptation: "Renounce your lies sweet succubi . . ."
Three guitars hurtled forward as one, with sounds overlapping, cascading, crashing together in a tangle of chaos before soaring again with eccentric melody. "No Way" was from the band's latest album, The Eternal a collection that dominated the night's set-list and underlined the group's commitment to the present over past glories.
The song was followed by the opening clang of "Sacred Trickster," another new number that accelerated with the slashing guitars of Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon, who breathlessly sang: "Press up against the amp / Turn up the treble, don't forget . . . What's it like to be a girl in a band? / I don't quite understand."
The Wiltern concert was among a handful of regional dates by the influential New York-based act to make up for shows canceled in September after Ranaldo fractured his wrist, sidelining the chiming, fraying guitar that is a crucial ingredient in the band's intricate wall of sound. The players often appeared lost in the music, leaning into their amps for an eruption of feedback, while behind them hung tall backdrops of abstract, human-like forms torn from fabric.
The music was challenging but also fueled with enough warmth and strange hooks to be subversively accessible, though any suggestion of crossover appeal is a relative concept on the Sonic Youth scale. The band has enjoyed airplay and high-profile gigs from Lollapalooza to Lincoln Center, but few of the band's core elements fit the restrictive mold of too much radio rock.
"Anti-Orgasm" opened with a quick, sexy guitar hook, before drifting to long passages of shadow and restraint and ending with a final afterglow of throbbing feedback. "Walkin Blue," sung by Ranaldo, was gorgeous and forceful, while drummer Steve Shelley and new bassist Mark Ibold (Pavement) unloaded a tougher rhythm for "Poison Arrow."
On "The Eternal's" "Massage the History," Moore strummed an acoustic guitar with the band for several dreamy minutes, while Gordon's voice rose movingly from whisper to a wail on love and loss: "Here's wishing you were here with me / Here's wishing we could massage history."
The band did occasionally reach back to the '80s ("Hey Joni") and '90s ("Mary-Christ"). The encore included " 'Cross the Breeze" (from the band's 1988 landmark album "Daydream Nation"), with Gordon on bass.
Soon after, the night unraveled into a final cloud of stirring feedback, as band members pushed their instruments into sounds wilder and harsher. In the closing moments, Gordon stood center stage dragging her instrument across the floor, sending one more growl of sound echoing out across the theater.
-- Steve Appleford
Photos: Top - Kim Gordon (left) and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in concert at the Wiltern in Los Angeles. Bottom - Thurston Moore on guitar. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times