"Thanks," Thurston Moore of legendary noise-rockers Sonic Youth laughs, hoisting up a Bethel Wildcats letterman jacket, an unusual gift from a crowd member at the group's packed performance at Tempe's Marquee Theatre. Moore, a 1976 graduate of the Connecticut high school, seems bemused by the offering. "You know, in high school, anyone wearing one of these jackets was after my ass."
Moore proceeds to launch into a story about one of his fellow Wildcats, a freshman named Margret Hyra, better known as Meg Ryan, whose Charlie's Angels-inspired looks caught the attention of Moore and his classmates. "I'll wear this jacket," he smiles. "And become a football player. Anyone know where I can get some date rape drugs?
Moore's wife, bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, shrugs off the off-color joke and launches into "Anti-Orgasm," a vicious song from their latest LP, The Eternal. I don't know how often Moore spits out pop-culture-reference-laced high school stories onstage, but judging by the sparse banter the rest of the show, my guess is that he doesn't often. Not that the crowd was bothered by the band's lack of conversation. The group certainly provided what folks showed up for: sheets of white noise; taut, tuneful melodies obscured by layers of hiss, guitar freak-outs; and the tribal thumping of the rhythm section. "I like things quiet," Moore goofed, responding to crowd chants of "turn it up," as he coaxed waves of feedback from his amplifier.
Despite their Our Band Could Be Your Life historical cred, Sonic Youth don't bother with that "elder-statesmen of indie-rock" act onstage. Moore, Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelley, and bassist Mark Ibold are as energetic as bands half their age, jumping around, flaying about, tossing up fists, and generally behaving like bad-asses. Songs like "Schizophrenia," "Antenna," and "Leaky Lifeboat" didn't just sound as good as they do on record; they sounded better, the raw interplay between the musicians creating a palpable energy.
Normally ridiculous trappings like three guitars -- or two bass guitars, for that matter -- didn't come off as silly, "big rock" antics. Instead, they merely served to up the band's pure-noise abilities. There was hardly any silence during the set; even pauses between songs were filled with screechy feedback and the electrical buzz of new guitars being plugged in. Ranaldo, Gordon, and Moore took turns on vocals but displayed how astonishingly well their voices work in unison during the chorus of "Poison Arrow." The group leaned heavy on The Eternal, which no doubt disappointed the guy behind me who kept shouting for "Superstar," the band's awesome Carpenters cover (the guy probably discovered Sonic Youth on the Juno soundtrack), but it's doubtful anyone in the audience was really expecting a greatest-hits set from the band.
And how about that audience? I go to a lot of shows, and generally, there's a sort of uniformity to the crowd. Not so with last night's gig. For every hipster there was an unwashed hippie kid, for every old-school punk dude there was a dad wearing a tucked-in button-down. Inspiring considering that Sonic Youth has achieved their success without much radio play (the FM 103.9-or Whatever-they're-calling-themselves-this-week van parked outside doesn't really count), without compromising their standards (I mean, not much at least), and without pandering to their audience. It's hard for a rock n' roll band to grow up, but I can't think of a more appropriate band to serve as an example of doing it right.
At the start of the band's first of two encores, two little girls, no older than 7 or 8, accompanied by their dad, pushed to the front. The cynical part of me thinks that maybe their well-intentioned dad stuffed their ears with plugs, got them the MC5 and Sonic Youth shirts they were sporting, and dragged them grudgingly out on a school night to see some noisy band they couldn't care less about. But the optimistic part of me, a part of me that usually winds up with a lot of hope early in a new year, thinks that just maybe those little girls, gazing up starry-eyed at Kim Gordon and company just might end up forming an amazing band one day, or managing one, or writing about rock for a living. Who knows? They'll wake up tomorrow with ringing in their ears -- I saw them fiddling with those pesky earplugs -- and go to school and tell their friends about what they saw and heard. It's impossible not to envy them. Imagine if your dad's rock was Sonic Youth.
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Last Night: Sonic Youth at The Marquee Theater
Better Than: Getting denied entrance into the Marquee for being intoxicated, like the dude who got turned away as I took off my shoes and got patted down by the security staff.
Random Fact: Thurston Moore was spotted buying DVDs at Zia Record Exchange earlier in the evening. Wouldn't be surprised to hear he picked up wax at Eastside Records, as well.
Further Listening: Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace! roster is certainly worth hearing, especially Turbo Fruits, Hush Arbors, and MV & EE.