Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Live Review: Sonic Youth

July 13th, 2007

Union Park

Chicago, IL

When Daydream Nation was released in 1988, Sonic Youth probably did not have a music festival nearly 20 years in the future in mind. However, after witnessing the occasion myself, I have to say I prefer if no other way. Granted, there were technical problems, mainly the lack of volume for those more than 20 feet back and the occasional lyrical flub, but regardless of those minute factors the show was worth every penny I spent over the weekend.

To know me is to know that I love Sonic Youth. In 1996, an old friend lent me his beat up Daydream CD. Being a teenager myself, I instantly fell for the album's opening track, the now classic "Teen Age Riot". Sure, the sound seemed a little distant, but the songs sounded anything but dated. In fact, to my teenage ears, it sounded like so many other bands I had been listening to on radio, cassette, and CD since I first learned how to change the channel from Nickelodeon to MTV, but was released way before any of those other bands (Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Beck, Soundgarden, the list goes on. Who hasn't Sonic Youth influenced?). Instantly I knew that I was in possession of something special. I cannot put into words the way I felt hearing Thurston and Lee's guitars for the first time. At the time it sounded like something out of this world, though now I know its just fucked up tunings and drumsticks making the squeals in "Eric's Trip". Somewhere around "Providence" I was able to catch my breath. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm not the same Ryan I was before I started this album." You probably think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.

Flash forward 11 years, and here I am standing in the outfield of some baseball park in the Chicago. The weather is cool, the night is upon the restless thousands, the pot brownies making my brain feel things I didn't thing were possible, and Thurston, Kim, Lee, and Steve, the Sonic Youth that made Daydream Nation, are taking the stage. Of course we all know exactly what is coming, they're playing the album in its entirety after all, but despite the lack of surprise the crowd explodes.

I've seen Sonic Youth play "Teen Age" twice before various tours and it has always been a show stopper. Despite the opening chords of the song being incredibly quiet, it did not disappoint. From our great distance Thurston looked and sounded as though he had not aged a bit since 1988, with his long hair either masking his face as he stood still, or bobbing from side to side when jumping about the stage. Except for the low volume, the song sounded perfect. If not for a few extra yelps, I probably would have thought it was a recording, even the low volume could have been in homage to the original '88 release, and not the re-issue that hit stores earlier this year.

After the first song, I couldn't help but wonder, "If "Teen Age Riot" owns a typical, non-Daydream show, then what song owns the Daydream show?" With as many people in attendance as there were, there were plenty of sporadic applauses to hit my ears each time a song was played. There were people, like myself, who needed to hear "Silver Rocket" just to make sure that what they were witnessing was real. Thankfully it was, as the band tore through it like they wrote it yesterday. One of the gems of the song is Steve's drumming as they come out of the feedback jam and back into the song, and hearing it live only solidified my belief that Steve is often times responsible for making their feedback parts as interesting as they are.

There were others, or maybe just myself, who traveled a great distance knowing full well that this would (probably) be the only time they would hear "Cross the Breeze" live. Again, the song was too quiet (though sound problems were a plague of the entire festival, not just Sonic Youth), which unfortunately affected my experience, but whatever. Yeah, it sucks a little not being able to hear one of your favorite songs ever, but I still heard it, sung along with it, and when the song neared its end the audience got just still and quiet enough for me to focus on my favorite part: The chords that close the song in contrast to the feedback.

You could hear the fans of "Eric's Trip", or perhaps just fans of Lee in general, making themselves known. I've also heard "Eric's Trip" before, and while I honestly think I liked it better in St. Louis, I think that is only because it was a complete and total surprise back in 2003. This time was performed no different than before, and still sounds as remarkable as it did in my bedroom 11 years ago. Off topic: I hope that my friends who took acid were enjoying this song as much as I was.

Perhaps surprisingly, people went apeshit for "Providence". Who knew that a phone message from Mike Watt could generate a bigger applause than, say, "Total Trash"?

Before I go on to say which song got the biggest applause, I'd like to muse on a few other things as well. (1) Since many of the songs have not been played in over a decade, I have to say it was pretty fucking incredible to hear just how tight the band was. Like I mentioned earlier, there were a few lyrical mishaps, but only a few. As for the music, everything was spot on. The band did have to relearn how to do some of the jams, and often times recreated them into something new. Those moments were my personal favorites, as it was like hearing, say, "Candle" or "Kissablity" for the first time all over again. (2) Though the lack of sound was disappointing at times, I was still there. I don't write that to sound indier-than-thou, or to come off as elitist or snobbish. No, I write that because it means something to me. Writing these paragraphs and thinking back to Friday almost put me in tears because even though it was hard to hear at times, that night was so special to me, just as the night I first listened to them was 11 years ago. Some people remember where they were when they heard John Lennon died. I remember what video game I was playing when I first put on Daydream (Super Mario Brothers 2, for Super Nintendo, in case you were curious).

Now for what you all have been waiting for. First prize goes to the final song, or songs I guess, of "Trilogy". Not only did each part get its own applause, but the final applause sounded like the entire city of Chicago was showing its appreciation. To be quite frank, "Trilogy" has never been one of my favorites, but on this night it stole the show. The lyrics "I'm just walking around/yr city is a wonder town" in the first part, "The Wonder", were especially fitting of the day I experienced with four of my best friends as we killed time earlier in the afternoon. The jams, especially the one that closes the song, and therefore the album, were intense. Like I said, I was never a huge fan of the song before, but now I'll dream of hearing it at every show.

The band then left the stage, but obviously the crowd of thousands were wanting more. Perhaps its a bit greedy to expect an encore after being blown away by what will likely be a once in a lifetime experience for many of the fans in attendance, but it didn't seem to matter once Sonic Youth returned, this time with Mark Ibold, to play three songs from last year's Rather Ripped. They started with "Incinerate", before moving on to a couple of Kim songs (perhaps because she isn't represented as well on Daydream?), "Reena" and "Jams Run Free". In comparison to the Daydream set, the songs sounded tighter, but the band seemed to rather enjoy ripping up the songs. In all, it was actually a great way to end the set, as the three songs are incredibly energetic, and even prompted my somewhat reserved friend James to comment on how excellent each of the Ripped songs sounded as they finished. Afterwards, we left and walked around the city some more. The city, after all, is a wonder town.

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