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Sonic Youth steps up and shatters eardrums

Lupo's at the Strand
Providence, Rhode Island


Sonic Youth live is exhausting. Exhilarating, don’t get me wrong, but it’s impossible not to leave physically and
emotionally drained. There is no live band past or present (maybe Hendrix, though I can’t be sure) that play with
as much unbridled chaos on stage, unleashing walls of guitars, drums, feedback and ear-piercing sound from a
few amps and some terribly battered guitars. Walk in anxious, walk out blown away – literally. This the live Sonic
But on April 9 in Providence, R.I., Sonic Youth threw the audience something of
a curveball, albeit one they hadn’t planned on.

Before their turn, though, Black Helicopter took the stage. Playing a set of tight,
tough rock songs with a penchant for noisy, feedback-driven instrumental bits,
Black Helicopter did a more than admirable job of warming up the crowd.
Armed with great stage presence, musicianship and a smart sense of humor,
the audience took to the band pretty easily.

“We’re playing some new songs tonight, but, I dunno, they’re all new to you,”
joked vocalist/guitarist Tim Shea.

Sonic followed a tidy 31 minutes later, with drummer Steve Shelley and
guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore walking to their respective ends of
the stage. Moore joked “where’s Kim?”, which was followed by bassist/guitarist
Kim Gordon hopping out to her center-stage position. They launched into a
tight, loud version of “Bull in the Heather,” but through it I had one thought in my
Sonic Youth, circa 1993
“Where’s Jim?”

After “Bull,” Gordon joked
that they had decided to
have a “Sonic Youth
Reunion,” a reference to
the band’s four-piece
status that lasted until
Jim O’Rourke joined the
band full-time in 2000. But
O’Rourke, Gordon noted,
was in the middle of a
personal crisis and sadly
couldn’t make it to the
show. The band wished
him well (as did most of
the audience, if not
vocally), and they took on a
brave challenge: playing
as a four-piece for the first
time in about five years.
O’Rourke has had such a
strong influence over their
work on
NYC Ghosts &
Bull in the Heather
Pattern Recognition
Unmade Bed
Skip Tracer
Catholic Block
I Love You Golden Blue
Rain On Tin
Teenage Riot
Paper Cut Exit
Pacific Coast Highway
Shadow of a Doubt
Expressway to yr Skull
Flowers, Murray Street and the incredible Sonic Nurse that I was immediately skeptical of the band’s ability to fill
in his sound through the set.

But I’m wrong a lot.

I shouldn’t have worried a second. While O’Rourke was obviously missed, the band pulled their energy together
and delivered a blistering, deafening, intense performance, calling waves of feedback through biting riffs and
pummeling drums.

The first big punch to the crowd’s collective stomach came during “Pattern Recognition.” Played without bass –
“Pussy Galore style,” as Moore put it – the band spun the chords on fire and pummeled their poor amps. What
followed was a wave of feedback and distortion that rumbled like a 747 and landed with all the subtlety of a Mack
truck into a guardrail. They meant business – they had something to prove.

The band weren’t without their sense of humor though. Moore and Ranaldo took to knocking a beach ball back
and forth to the front rows most of the night, with Moore adding some nifty little spin kicks off of the speaker rigs
into the audience. There was a lot of joking between musicians between songs and guitar noodles meant for
nothing. They’re great, but they like to have fun too, ya know.

It was back to work as soon they’d start up again, though. Ranaldo’s “Skip Tracer” featured some intense guitar
work by Moore, while “Rain on Tin,” the highlight of Murray Street, was simply the fiercest version I’ve ever heard,
in person, on bootleg or otherwise. The band simply thrashed the strings, sucking every last ounce of
aggression out of the tune before dropping it like a bad habit.

In short, the band was on fire – sparks were even flying off of Moore’s strings from time to time. “Paper Cup Exit”
featured some intense jamming that abruptly came to a halt, stopping the crowd dead in their tracks. “Pacific
Coast Highway,” absent of its trumpet because of Gordon’s need to fill in for O’Rourke on bass, was particularly
biting, ending with another wave of distortion and chaos.

The encore pounded the sonic swarm further. Closing with a pair from the seminal 1986 album
EVOL, “Shadow
of a Doubt” and “Expressway to yr Skull” saw the band scaling more heights, with a feedback coda that seemed
to give the audience a sense of closure. The wailing distortion slowly faded into oblivion, and the band gave their
thanks and walked away.

There is no band touring today anywhere near as reckless, intense and powerful as Sonic Youth. The sixth
sense they’ve developed between them is unmatched. Their manipulation – hell, it’s downright bullying – of
sound is jaw-dropping. And what’s more, their ability to rise up in the face of adversity – missing a key member
of the band – was damn near inspiring.

To paraphrase Dead Heads, there is nothing like a Sonic Youth concert.

Check out Sonic Youth at and Black Helicopter at
Event poster