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Sonic Youth
Scala, London
Monday April 27 2009

It's not often that we get the opportunity to get this close to Sonic Youth. These days the band's natural habitat is large theatre venues - the Brixton Academies of this world - so a one-off gig at a substantially smaller club is not to be sneezed at.

Sometimes, when a big band appears in a smaller venue, the inevitable suspicion is that the popularity pot is starting to go off the boil. That's not so with Sonic Youth: tickets for this show sold in minutes flat, and there'll be a tour of the more familiar supersized rock palaces shortly, to tie in with the new album, The Eternal. Tonight is just a little excursion to the downsized zone for the hell of it - and also, maybe, gigs like this remind Sonic Youth where it all started, in the basement dives of no wave New York, back in the early 80s.

It's been a long, strange trip for Sonic Youth since then, and I wonder if they ever thought they'd end up in the twenty-first century, lauded as the grandparents of alternative rock.

If Sonic Youth are the grandparents, Chora must be the delinquent kids. Three scruffy urchins disport themselves amid drums, electronics, violin, steel guitar, oboe and found objects. If that sounds like a recipie for un-rock 'n' roll, that's because it is. Violin bows are applied to everything, metal bowls are clashed and battered on the floor.

The drummer somehow ties everything together, without ever playing anything that even slightly resembles a rock beat. He's so effortlessly in control that I suspect he's the only member of the band who could claim to be a musician, in any formal sense. His two colleagues devote themselves to the task of making noise, with a structure and precision that indicates there's some sort of plan at work here - but I bet it's nothing you could write on a stave. I think an entire evening of this stuff would end up being rather annoying (and I suspect Chora would regard annoyance as a good result) but in a limited support-band sized dose, this racket works fine.

Sonic YouthSonic Youth's genius has always been to walk the line between avant-noise and ye olde rock 'n' roll with the insouciance of a Sunday stroll. And tonight they take us for a typically effortless constitutional through the extensive Sonic Youth songbook.

The band looks - well, like Sonic Youth always look: like a bunch of English literature students on a break between lectures, aside from guitarist Lee Ranaldo, who has matured to the point where he looks like he is the lecturer. You'd think a band called Sonic Youth would be finding it a little difficult to carry off their name as all five members head for the fiftysomething zone, but uncannily this never seems to be an issue. Other guitarist Thurston Moore is as tousled and gangling as a freshman on his first day in college. Grandparents of alternative rock they may be, but Sonic Youth aren't ready for their armchairs yet.

So, here we go. Thurston Moore strides out, and the first thing he does is wedge a drumstick behind his guitar strings, as effective a way of saying 'Tin hats on, folks - here comes Sonic Youth' as I've ever seen. Then it's into a slow smoulder through 1981's 'She Is Not Alone', a counter-intuitively mellow no-wave workout from the band's earliest days. The gas gets turned up a bit with 'Bull In The Heather', the nearest thing Sonic Youth have ever had to a hit single (and it wasnt that near) - but the real kick-off occurs on the third song in, 'No Way', an unfamiliar newie, which carries all before it with a hefty blam. It's like getting in the way of a block of concrete on wheels: the song is massive and implacable, but always powers forward. Working the riff like a punk rock Status Quo, Sonic Youth couldn't slam that monster into the floor any more effectively if they'd used sumo moves. If this is a calling card from the new album then I think I'm going to like it.

Sonic YouthHaving covered their entire career in the first three songs, the band proceed to fill the gaps, bouncing weird guitar tunings off the walls and ripping the rock 'n' roll rule book into interesting shapes as they go. Even the Ciccone Youth rap workout, 'Making The Nature Scene' gets a blast - a rare nod to the one-off album upon which Sonic Youth pretended, not entirely convincingly, to be another band. Kim Gordon, who takes the lead vocals on this and roughly half the songs tonight, sounds, as ever, as if she's half way between blithely unconcerned and thouroughly pissed off - very New York, very Sonic Youth, that.

But for all the oddities and the newies, there's a certain bias in the set as a whole towards the Daydream Nation album: tunes from that release, 'Hey Joni', 'The Sprawl', and 'Cross The Breeze' all make it in. I'm reminded, oddly, of Siouxsie And the Banshees' tendency to load up their live sets with selections from JuJu, as if that was the album that somehow defined the band. You could argue, I suppose, that Daydream Nation is Sonic Youth's definitive album.

But I won't attempt that discussion right now, because the band are giving 'Kool Thing' a killer bubblegum workout, and there's moshing to be done. It's our last chance to get a Teenage Riot on before the set finally shudders to a close in a heady din of cacophonous guitar. That's Sonic Youth for you: art and noise and attitude and bubblegum, and drumsticks in the guitar strings. It's all you need, really, isn't it?


Essential Links:

Sonic Youth: Website | MySpace

For more photos from this gig, find Sonic Youth by name here.

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