Sonic Youth Tom Verlaine / Oct. 7, 2001 / New York (Bowery Ballroom)
Billboard Magazine October 08, 2001
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., it hasn't exactly been easy to get on with one's daily life. For the members of noise rock institution Sonic Youth, the task has been doubly difficult, as access to the group's studio - a mere three blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center - was impossible until a few days ago.|
As an adjunct to furthering work on its next album and in an effort to raise funds for two charities assisting with tragedy relief efforts, Sonic Youth led a sold-out benefit last night (Oct. 7) at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Proceeds benefited Asociacion Tepeyac de New York, a not-for-profit organization that will aid Mexican and other Latino immigrants affected by the attacks, as well as the New York Womens' Foundation.
The evening got off to a strong start with a lengthy set from Television principal Tom Verlaine, who has rarely played solo in recent years. Backed by Television drummer Billy Ficca, bassist Patrick Derivaz, and guitarist Alan Licht, Verlaine unleashed his signature siren-like guitar solos atop a number of extended, loosely constructed instrumentals. But the best response came for a surprising rendition of Television's landmark 1975 debut single, "Little Johnny Jewel," a welcome reminder of Verlaine's creative power.
The momentum of the performance was quickly drained by an unmusical but thankfully brief set of pure noise from Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Later, poet Eileen Myles read some of her work atop minimal backing from Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon and Jim O'Rourke, an interesting but albeit unnecessary interlude that seemed unrelated to the causes at hand.
A disconcertingly shambling set by Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) didn't exactly help matters. On record, Marshall is a compelling, spooky talent, and her songs take on added intrigue with the help of backing musicians such as Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. But as a solo act, she has often been incapable of completing an entire song, which she rarely did on this night.
At one point, she even muttered to the crowd, "what else?," as if she herself didn't have an opinion on the subject. The answer turned out to be the first line of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," 30 seconds' worth of Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," and similarly short portions of Moby Grape's "Naked if I Want To" and the traditional "Salty Dog." The crowd cheered on the fragile Marshall, but not even these howls of encouragement could right the ship.
Sonic Youth quickly got things back on track, with Moore confessing to the "strange emotions" of returning to the band's studio, so close to ground zero. The group then launched into the instrumental "Magick Child," the first of five brand new songs. Emphasizing the material's freshness, Moore counted off the section changes to make sure everyone was in sync.
"Disconnection Notice" was a slower, Moore-sung number with shades of "Dirty Boots," from 1990's "Goo" album, while the instrumental "Celtic Frost" dusted off the band's familiar spindly guitar lines and wrapped them around an unusually ear-pleasing melody. Moore introduced the next song as "Sonic Youth Says Hello to the Strokes," but the dirge that followed had more in common with My Bloody Valentine-style wall of noise than the throwback style New York's much-hyped band of the moment.
In another nod to its past, "The Empty Page" conjured memories of 1988's seminal "Daydream Nation" album, this time with an extra dose of garage-rock oomph. The main set closed with a fiercely intense, feedback-laden take on "NYC Ghosts & Flowers," the Ranaldo-sung tone poem to Manhattan.
A five-song encore raided the archives for such favorites as "Schizophrenia" (giving Gordon her first lead vocal of the night) and "White Cross" from 1987's "Sister" album, as well as "Drunken Butterfly." "Brother James" turned the clock back to 1983's "Kill Yr Idols," while "Burning Spear" found Moore and Ranaldo battering their long-suffering guitars with drumsticks.
Although uncertainty is reigning in Manhattan and throughout the world, one thing is for sure: a little Sonic Youth definitely goes a long way. And as shrieking tones hung in the air and band members said their good-byes, it was clear they had done their part - for the city, and for the fans.