Friday, August 31, 2007

Sonic Youth, Roundhouse

Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth have always trodden a fine line between experimentalism and indulgence, occasionally stepping over it. One thing they don't have much truck with, though, is nostalgia, so this performance of their classic 1988 album Daydream Nation was never going to be a matter of running through a reproduction of what's on the record. They didn't go as far as John Martyn did when I saw his Don't Look Back concert, where Solid Air was performed in a completely different order and completely different arrangements to the original recording (Martyn's reasoning being that as he didn't have his 1973 band with him there was no point in playing it like that), but when you're a band that deals in feedback as a staple of your sound a certain amount of unpredictability is inescapable before you've even played a note.

Listening to the album before the gig I was struck by how gentle a lot of it sounds now (which may be due to the fact that pretty much all music now seems to be recorded at a monotonously blistering level). Live, you're reminded that Sonic Youth's roots are in the New York punk scene, with the emphasis put on the driving rhythms and a much rawer sound than on record. Then there are those extended moments of feedback, where they sit back and let nature take its course with just the odd movement to manipulate the sound. Although (of course) very loud, there's a strange beauty in here (I'm reminded of the extended feedback Neil Young and Crazy Horse are prone to live, which they even edited into an album). In a way, they're at their most compelling when there's almost nothing happening.

It'd be easy to poke fun at the idea of a band with "youth" in its name consisting of people mostly in their 50s, but Sonic Youth belie this contradiction. Daydream Nation stands up well after 20 years, and, gangling enthusiastically about the stage like the Bash Street Kids with guitars, they play it with the same enthusiasm and commitment they bring to the newer songs they play as encores. Although "encores" isn't really the right word, as it's effectively a whole other set. They bring to mind the observation that youth is simply a state of mind.

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