As a longtime Sonic Youth fan, I have a running joke I tell when asked about the first time I saw the band in concert. It’s a joke because I ridiculously attempt not to reveal my age. It goes like this: “It was the mid-1980s when I first saw Sonic Youth. They were playing at Ohio’s Oberlin College with Big Black, who I was there to see. It was pretty funny to watch people stare at me and wonder what a 5-year-old was doing at this noisy rock show.”
Insert rim shot.
Corny joke aside, and whatever age I happened to be, Sonic Youth didn’t have to do much to win me over. I was an instant fan, hooked on the band's noisy, no-wave sound, and each member’s contribution to the whole package.
When singer and guitarist Thurston Moore took the stage at Valley Bar last night, leading the Thurston Moore Group, it triggered a series of flashbacks for me. My mind quickly toured through the Sonic Youth shows I’ve seen, as well as side and solo projects the band's members have done. I realized how consistently solid the output has been from Moore and company since the late ‘70s. Last night was another sonically solid notch on his musical belt.
Moore looked loose and happy when the band took the stage. He engaged in a couple of seconds of chatter with the audience and gave props to local openers Soft Shoulder for an excellent set. That band is led by James Fella, who also runs the label Gilgongo, of which Moore mentioned being a longtime fan.
Then the noisy business began.
“Here’s a song about replacing all those fucking gun stores with bookstores,” said Moore, as the band launched into “Cease Fire,” from Rock n Roll Consciousness, released earlier this year. The buzzy track with a timely message and sound was reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing,” and delivered with gusto by the band that also features James Sedwards on guitar, Deb Googe on bass, and another former Sonic Youth-er Steve Shelley on drums.
“Turn On,” another from the new record, was next. Well, it came right after Moore made some adjustments and took a swig of water announcing, “Sorry, I have a pubic hair in my mouth,” which, of course, garnered laughs and inspired some audience members to shout out their own comments on that statement. Hairy teeth aside, the song was killer. It’s both patient and hypnotic with its slow build and lyrics like “Turn on your TV beam / Turn onto the angel’s scene / Turn on the radio dream / Turn on your god headlights … I come believing in your light,” before it lets loose into its driving and forceful end.
That one wrapped up with some choppy, chunky, noisy guitar assaults that cranked up the energy before it was time for “Speak to the Wild,” a song from Moore’s 2014 solo release, The Best Day. Between Moore’s lyrics like “The king has come to join the band / The king has come with no demand,” and the loose twang in his voice, it’s nearly impossible not to recall Neil Young and his “My My Hey (Out of the Blue).”
It was a testament to the band’s comfort in playing together. A sense of trust might be more accurate. Without a lot of obvious interaction, like banter or eye contact, they delivered that one with a pervasive urgency that was only mildly contained.
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The band played a few more songs before calling it a night, expectedly offering some guitar-driven jams that ranged from bluesy to brutal. Anyone who came to get a dose of Moore’s penchant for ambling on his instrument wasn’t disappointed.
They came back out for an encore of “Ono Soul,” from Moore’s Psychic Hearts solo release. If anyone was waiting for Sonic Youth covers, this oldie from Moore’s solo efforts embodied the magic combo inherent to the Sonic Youth sound – hypnotic vocal lull, subtle-yet-driving rhythms, guitar discord, and an overall haunting starkness.
With the Thurston Moore Group, some of that starkness has seemed to bite the dust, a bit, at least in the live show. The edginess is coming more from the music than the performers, and it works pretty damn well. Moore closed it up with a smile, shouting out “peace and love,” before sending a satisfied crowd on their way. Minus those who stayed an extra few to ogle the pedal boards.
Last Night: Thurston Moore Group at Valley Bar.
The crowd: An unusual amount of really, really tall people.
Overheard: "Some of their 'guitar faces' are really hard to watch."
Notebook dump: I wonder how many times people have written about Thurston Moore and referred to his hair as "moppy."