The show was scheduled to begin at 20:00, and with pre-show lines at NASA notoriously long, I practically ran to the venue at 19:45, certain that even with a ticket I’d still end up waiting a while before I could even get in. Not so – at 19:50 the place was empty, the chairs were still up and the staff was seated at one table, smoking. In fact, people wouldn’t start coming in until 20:20. Apparently, there isn’t that much demand to see the band that everyone who’s anyone pretends to like, Sonic Youth.
In their heyday, Sonic Youth were famous in indie circles for creating a sound involving bare-bones rock hooks carried across within a deluge of feedback and noise. Many in fact credit them as being co-founders of indie rock and the Youth have been cited by numerous grunge and post-grunge outfits as an inspiration.
Their sound, however, has changed very little in the past 10 to 15 years, which should mean if you liked them then you’ll like them now. That might be the case, but their live show had mixed results.
Curver opened up, playing two songs that were just voice and guitar but still sounded complete, however uninspired. This was followed by his other project, Ghostigital.
Ghostigital features former Sugarcubes frontman Einar Örn on vocals, two guitarists, a DJ, Curver working a laptop, an old loop tape machine and a few other unidentifiable gadgets, two guitarists, and Einar Örn’s son – who didn’t look older than 10 or 11 – on trumpet, a kid who showed more professionalism than some musicians three times his age.
Einar Örn has lost none of his hyperactivity, twitching and bounding through all of their songs. Ghostigital’s music has heavy industrial overtones, sounding at times like a giant angry robot crushing buildings as it stomps its way over the city, and every musician on stage delivered this assault with passion. For as short as their set was, it was one of the best performances I’ve seen in Iceland so far, and they left the crowd screaming for more.
The equipment set-up for Sonic Youth was pretty involved. I counted ten beat-up Fender guitars lined up on a rack (with only one bass), and three banks of pedals taped down to the stage. Most of the pedals (including a Mooger Fooger and a 25K OHM) were covered in masking tape, marked with numbers and arrows, but they all looked about as old as the guitars. There were more than a few people photographing these pedals with their mobiles. After much tuning/noodling from the roadies, one of them left a Gibson on a guitar stand, squelching forth a piercing wall of feedback. The crowd roared – the noise was obviously the cue that Sonic Youth were about to mount the stage.
The Youths aren’t so young anymore, and the Daisy Duke shorts and glittery top worn by vocalist and bassist Kim Gordon made her look more like a Miami Beach retiree than an indie queen. The others in the group – with the exception of lead guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore – looked comfortable in their own skin, but 47-year-old Moore was still sporting the skate-rat look: a great bowl of hair over most of his face, oversized t-shirt and baggy jeans.
The band started with a relatively subdued “Golden Blues,” while footage from a waterslide at a theme park was projected on the wall behind them. Throughout the show, most of the footage projected behind them would have a watery theme. The song ended with a great deal of noise, and then Moore decided to make his way into the crowd, sliding his guitar over NASA’s mirrored pillars, banging it against the PA speaker about three metres over the heads of the audience, followed by a little crowd surfing. The audience was ecstatic, but this would prove to be one of two high points in the entire show.
Having sufficiently blown their load so early in the set, even classics like “Skip Tracer” and “Shadows” sounded flat and uninspired, which made the change of guitars after every song seem like it was done more for effect than out of necessity. A few of Reykjavík’s hipper set stayed close to the front of the stage, feigning being rocked. One man in the crowd felt compelled to shout his love for Gordon after every song, though she was decidedly unmoved by the declarations.
On the positive side, there was very little between-song chatter. On only two occasions did Moore talk to the crowd – both times turning brief technical adjustments – speaking in a parlance to match his attire:
“So what books are you all reading these days? Harry Potter? Is that the shit now? How about movies? Did ya’ll see The Island with fuckin Scarlett Johansson? Have you seen that fuckin shit? She seems a little young to be making all that headway and shit. Nah, I’m just playin. She’s cool.”
Again, this man is 47 years old.
The audience, with the exception of the previously-mentioned indies, remained only mildly impressed by their set. That is, until the Youth began to play the last song in their set before the encore, “Kool Thing.” At that point, people shrieked and howled, and I watched a mullet-sporting boy with a “fuzz-stache” push a younger girl out of his way so he could get to the front of the crowd. The previously-subdued Gordon suddenly began dancing like an early-60s go-go dancer. She sang with authority for the first time, even daring to step into a crowd that seemed determined to rip her to pieces if she got any closer.
This impressive performance ended with another ear-bleeding wall of noise, and the band walked off stage, leaving the crowd with the musical equivalent of blue balls. They stomped and chanted for an encore, and just when it seemed they were about to give up on the idea, the band returned, only to deliver lacklustre, tediously noisy versions of “White Rooms,” “Brother James” and “Teenage.”
On my way out, I ran into a friend of mine who told he’d me waited all his life to see Sonic Youth live. When I asked what he thought, he replied hesitantly, “I don’t know. I guess I was expecting something more.”
Maybe we all were. For myself, I wasn’t expecting so much a flawless recreation of my past, as maybe some signs of development into new territory, which didn’t happen. It would appear as though Sonic Youth – the band that once defined innovation in underground music for many – have worked themselves into a comfortable, Rolling Stones-style rut.
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