Lee Ranaldo's guitars speak for themselves in Allston
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Walking onto the stage quietly and unassumingly, Lee Ranaldo was handed a guitar by the neck. He grabbed onto the top just under the headstock with his left hand, picked up a violin bow with his right, and the evening of sound began.
This was the elongated introduction of “Key/Hole,” and the beginning of a nearly two-hour set by Ranaldo and his band the Dust, featuring Sonic Youth ally Steve Shelley on drums, Alan Licht on guitar and Tim Luntzel on bass, at Boston’s Brighton Music Hall. The small club provided the ideal setting for Ranaldo to toy with his guitar and even chat with the crowd in between songs, but the songs were the stars.
Ranaldo has focused himself on rock albums that are less about experimental noise collections and more about songs and composition since Sonic Youth went on the shelf in 2011. That he’s found success shouldn’t be a surprise — his songs have always been inventive and interesting — but it’s still incredible to see how comfortable he is in his own world.
During “The Rising Tide,” a song he noted was inspired by his teenage years, he instilled a kind of quiet terror in the music, taking the band through movements and passages that conjured up quiet moments and points of poignant volume. It was a reminder that, on top of having an ear that can zero in on a pop melody, he lives in an electric sound world and still enjoys turning it up and shocking the crowd with guitars that sting as they move.
The night was dominated by that guitar sound. Appearing as effortless as ever, Ranaldo was able to switch from melodic chords to frantic bursts of noise in a heartbeat, gliding his fingers over a battered Fender Jazzmaster and creating a cacophony so wild and disorienting as to send heads spinning, and like it was nothing, pull the ripcord and floating home on a dreamy bed of sound. He pulled out a lot of these tricks on “By the Window,” sliding his hand high up on the fretboard and releasing just as the amps were really wailing.
His solo work has had that ability on vinyl to expertly mix textures and moods that creates a more complex feeling in the listener than, “that was loud.” It summons a deeper element in the soul. When he and the Dust were traveling the winding path of “Xtina as I Knew Her” for the main set closer, he was changing tempos, leaning hard on the strings and looking to the band to make sure everyone was ready to either take off or bring it home. It was obvious enough that he was having fun with all this.
And there was room to be a little less serious and have some fun. The band broke into a furious cover of the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked” — “And not just because we’re in Boston,” Ranaldo told the crowd, “but we’ve be playing this on our iPods a lot.” Two songs by Wire were saved for the encore, with Ranaldo slamming the guitar hard enough to break a string at the beginning of “Mannequin.”
If it felt as if the night ended on a celebratory, that’s because it should have. Two albums and a handful of singles into his post-Sonic Youth career, Ranaldo has shown no sign of growing pains or uncertainty. He’s himself through and through, from bowed guitar sound collages to punk covers, and the result is something pure that needs to be heard.
Email Nick Tavares at email@example.com