Sonic Youth, Webster Hall, NYC- 2/17
NYC ROLL-TOP: Sonic Curfew
It's too bad Webster Hall is killing rock music in Manhattan, 'cause (in theory) it's kind of a cool place to see shows. "It's good to be back at the Ritz," Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore cracked not long after his 26-year old band hit the stage on Friday, February 16th. Known by that name during the glitzy glitzy '80s (when Sonic Youth were making their name in dingier quarters a bit down Broadway in SoHo), the club is currently where Bowery Presents, the city's largest indie promoter, puts on their big rock shows. It's got beautiful marble floors and cool reliefs on the walls, and — on good nights — almost feels grand.
For Sonic Youth, it was a homecoming. Besides a night at the soon-to-be-defunct CBGB last summer, it was their first major gig in Manhattan proper in two years, and they were their usual art-punk selves: the 6'6" Moore careening around his side of the stage, bassist Kim Gordon in the middle like a displaced gallery goddess, and grey-haired Lee Ranaldo gracefully attacking his guitars like an avant-statesmen. Moore addressed the entire crowd as "man." As in, "thanks for coming, man." Laconically jovial, he sounded like he was happy to be home. But what home were Sonic Youth coming back to?
It was city officials who banned smoking in bars an few years back. In one fell swoop they removed the proverbial (and fairly literal) vaseline on the lens of the rock experience, as well as a convenient mask for pot smoking, eliminating both social and ritualistic elements of live music's allure. But it was Bowery Presents who started booking major weekend shows that had to be over by 10 pm so the place could be cleared out for a dance club, even more tightly regulating the idea of a rock show. What hopes of transcendent chaos could one possibly have at the time of night?
Sonic Youth were great. They did their best. Focusing mainly on 2006's Rather Ripped, in places, they were even majestic. On Moore’s "Do You Believe in Rapture," the band moved at a silken, relaxed clip. "Do you believe in sweet sensation? Do you believe in second chance?" Moore sang, almost tenderly, over the noise. "City streets so freezing cold," Ranaldo exclaimed (quite accurately) on "Rats," working from his usual fantastic formula: half-spoken poetry erupting into full-blown melody. Moore played "Or," his ode to DIY-era fanzine life, for comedy. It worked, though missed the sublimity of its closing slot on Rather Ripped.
With former Pavement bassist and touring SYer Mark Ibold playing along with Gordon, and holding it down when she took off her instrument to front the band, the quintet sounded lean, if never exactly gnarly. Beginning and ending with older numbers (1988's "Candle" and 1986's "Expressway To Yr Skull") and sprinkling a few others throughout, everything ran like a polished road show. Perhaps too tight at times, the occasionally jam-happy Sonics' improvisation was limited to one song, and only at the tail end of the final encore.
When Sonic Youth closed a show at Brooklyn's Northsix with "Expressway To Yr Skull" in 2005, it stretched for nearly a half-hour, Gordon leaving the stage while Moore, Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelly, and Jim O'Rourke, urged out quieter and quieter spirals of noise. That the same segment at Webster Hall was a quarter of the length, the band dutifully filing offstage at 10:07, would seem to be a result of the environment.
As I do after most Sonic Youth shows, I do believe in rapture, but almost definitely not at Webster Hall, where the dance beats start pounding up from the lower floors as the shows run to their end. Music isn’t dying in New York City. After all, at least at Webster Hall, the indie crowds are just being replaced by different kinds of music fans. But, for heaven’s sake, there’s gotta be a better place to do it. I also believe in rapture and unpredictability being closely related. Subsequently forced to go find alternative means of chaos for my Friday night, and having plenty of time to do it, the Sonic Youth show lingers like something less than the real deal. Which is too bad. Because it probably was.
Jesse Jarnow blogs at wunderkammern27.com.