Celebrating independence with Sonic Youth
By JOSHUA LIEBERSON
STATIC and FEEDBACK correspondent
Independence Day in New York City! For most of my adult life (and all other lives for that matter), I’ve escaped to the suburban tranquility of Upstate New York for July 4 festivities. This year, I had some decent plans that began to form on June 12. It was on that day, at noon, that I needed to reserve my free tickets to see Sonic Youth in Battery Park. I thought it a fitting way to spend Independence Day, with one of the true legends of the Independent/Alternative/whatever-you-want-to-call-it this decade scene. Sonic Youth, over the course of their near 30-year career, has left a lasting influence on numerous generations of music artists, and generally has changed the rules on the sonically acceptable format for rock groups, and more than just once. To celebrate them on the same day that we celebrate the founding fathers of our nation, who also changed the rules for governing some 232 years ago, seems oddly fitting.
The plan was Sonic Youth, then the South Street Seaport for the Macy’s July 4 Fireworks Spectacular. With that, we headed down on the subway to the southern most tip of Manhattan, and descended upon Battery Park. The park is a bastion of true tourism at its absolute peak, featuring people dressed up like Lady Liberty (with sunglasses) with whom people can pay them to get their picture taken, countless vendors that charge concert prices for bottles of water, dirt water hot dogs (a New York tradition for your everyday tourist), and cheap New York artwork … mostly framed posters of Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Yankee Stadium. The ferry that takes you from Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor’s Island, and Staten Island are all housed here, so foot traffic on July 4 is nothing short of infuriating.
Nonetheless, we headed into the venue for the afternoon show. Walking through the barricaded entrance that snaked like a large intestine for miles and miles without ever gaining ground on anything, we get to the people taking our free tickets, and head onto the field. The stage is rather small for what I thought would be a pretty big show, and the view is further complicated by tree branches that ascend down to completely block your view of stage, almost anywhere that you decide to camp out. After $9 spent on a 20 oz. lemonade and two bottles of water, it’s time for the show to begin.
The opening act is introduced as legends of the 80s indie rock scene, as if in the vein of R.E.M., or Sonic Youth themselves. I’ve never heard of them. They are called the Feelies, and they played a pretty pleasurable batch of songs mostly sounding every bit early 80s R.E.M. without any Michael Stipe presence: nothing to completely knock your socks off, but nothing to complain about. I noted to my girlfriend, “if hipsters took over the world, they would be the perfect county fair band.” Sure, it comes off as an insult, but it sort of works without being such. Despite my feelings for the Feelies, the crowd loved them and egged them on at every opportunity, which even lead to an encore by the opening band. Now that’s rare!
After a short break, the final act of the afternoon is announced, and Sonic Youth hit the stage to a roar. With an overcast sky, they open the show with “She Is Not Alone,” a rather laid back start. Just as the intensity picked up at the end of the song, the skies began to open up and the rain came. It was very much fitting with the music. They followed that with “Bull in the Heather,” a song I hadn’t heard them play live, or actually heard at all since the early to mid-90s. That is the true wonder of seeing this band. You can hear original songs from anywhere in the last 30 years and relate it to the moment you remember the song, be it from the seminal Daydream Nation, or even Murray Street and Rather Ripped.
Speaking of Daydream Nation, “Silver Rocket” was the next song to hit our ears, and it was a fast paced riot, complete with Thurston Moore’s signature wall-of-sound feedback. He went to all lengths to light up the crowd with feedback and energy, going so far as to drag his guitar seemingly through the amps piled up on stage, and then down on the barrier separating the crowd from the stage. Everyone took great delight in the performance thus far, and Sonic Youth was on their game for their Independence Day homecoming.
The remainder of the first set ran through songs old and new, some of which I was familiar with, some of which passed me by over the years. The next highlight of note was the first set closer, “Drunken Butterfly,” in which Kim Gordon forgot the lyrics after the first verse, and Thurston Moore implored her to keep singing the first verse over and over again instead. She went backstage instead so she could get a lyrical refresher.
The band finished out with two encores, featuring two songs each. In the closing encore, “Schizophrenia” was introduced as a song for the fans of the older material, and was as rocked out as featured way back in 1991: The Year Punk Broke. They closed the show with a great “100%,” which, after “Silver Rocket,” had to be my favorite of the set.
All told, the show went much like a blur to me. I recognized about a quarter of the songs since I was not so familiar with Rather Ripped (I’ve spun the disc a few times, but not enough to know the songs per se), but walked away as satisfied as when I saw them for the same price at Central Park some 6 years earlier. They are one of the truly relevant living legends roaming the rock ‘n’ roll world right now, and when they come to your town, everything should halt as you see them change your rules for what to expect at a rock concert.
As a post-script, the Macy’s Fireworks were the only thing to not go to plan, as we had a terrible spot to watch. At least we had our Sonic Youth experience, and a knowledge of where to watch the fireworks from next year.
Next Up: The Black Keys, again, McCarren Park Pool, Brooklyn, August 7.