Sonic Youth at the Williamsburg Waterfront

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan

Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan

Sonic Youth has been kicking for quite some time. Since the early 1980s, the band has torn the rock music formula into shreds and pieced it back together in their own manic image of expression. Having helped supply the blueprint on which the entire independent music scene built itself upon, Sonic Youth is a hard name to avoid when discussing the root of American counterculture in the past few decades. Just seeing this group of near-middle-aged Brooklynites on stage last Saturday, burning the ironic moustaches off the post-lazy Williamsburg cynics, was a pleasant surprise, but even more shocking is to consider that they’ve been doing that since 1981 without fail.

So, I had fun at the concert! The weather was ideal, a comfortable 78 degrees with enough breeze to keep sweat off the neck but enough sun to be thankful for the Manhattan skyline speeding up the sunset process, when Kurt Vile and the Violaters took the stage at the Williamsburg Waterfront at around 6:30. The crowd had yet to completely pack the lengthy stretch of concrete that made up the venue but those who came early enough to see the Philadelphia pedal-folk crooner were pleased enough with his breezy cuts from the wistful Smoke Ring for My Halo. The music was a nice soundtrack to the waning afternoon, but the visual spectacle left a lot to be desired. A kid’s keen observation that the drummer of the Violators looked a lot like the frontman quickly led to a brief party game among a group of concert goers, in which we tried to guess the names of Kurt Vile’s family band—Burt Vile and Kyle Vile were among my favorite hypotheses.

A few minutes after the Violators left the stage, the ladies of Wild Flag took their places in front of a much larger crowd. This Sleater-Kinney/ Helium super-group brought a excited performance that more than made up for Kurt’s lack of charisma. Former Sleater-Kinnist Carrie Brownstien broke out a catalogue of scissor kicks that surely haven’t flown as high since 2002, leaped on the drumkit and man-handled the microphone stand with a grin and a snarl. Since she and Mary Timony split frontwoman duty about 50/50, it was very difficult not to feel more attached to Brownstien’s vicious stage presence than to Timony’s jumpiness. The actual music was pretty good, nothing mind-blowing. But it’s certainly not hard to see why Kim Gordon later dedicated the classic

The opening band, Wild Flag, performs. courtesy of L magazine

“Flower” to this no-boys-no-bass four piece.

Since their canon of classic records is so extensive, the band has a pretty polarizing live set, some songs working half the crowd into an appreciative frenzy, others doing the same for a completely different group of fans. At the Waterfront on Saturday, there was the Goo and Dirty fans, the Sister and Daydream Nation fans, Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves fans and everyone in between. Every fan has his or her preference, even when it comes to band members. What dorky Sonic Youth fan-boy hasn’t spent hour contemplating whether Lee or Thurston is a more exciting frontman? What about whether Kim Gordon is more attractive as a grungy twenty something or a rock star cougar? Regardless, the packed crowd saw a setlist on Saturday filled with a surprising amount of material from the group’s early career—a healthy showing from the abrasive Confusion is Sex and the Kill Yr Idols EP, and from one of my personal favorite records, 1985’s Bad Moon Rising. Sonic Youth opened up their set with two songs from that album: “Brave Men Run” transitioned into a super tight rendition of “Death Valley ’69.”  Sure they’re on their way up the hill, but besides for a couple of crows’ feet and smile lines on the musicians’ face, age definitely is not slowing them down. Especially now with former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold in their live line-up, Sonic Youth is a hurricane on  stage.

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan

Highlights included classic album cuts like “Cotton Crown” and “Eric’s Trip,” the second of which included Thurston Moore going hog-wild on a four-stringed guitar with a drumstick as a slide, one of the many noise-making antics of the night. Later in the show, Moore took a Poland Springs Bottle and smashed it open onto the strings of his strangely tuned Fender Jazzmaster, sliding the crushed plastic up and down the fretboard, spurting water all over the stage. Lee Ranaldo, a fellow avante garde noise auter, was not to be out shown, accepting a ukulele from a duo of thrilled concertgoers dressed in polka-dotted Salsadance get-up and manically mutilating it with a screwdriver in the cacophonic intro to the rarely played “Inhuman.” (I saw the two Salsa women, [possibly hermanitas] trying to persuade a security guard to let them back stage after the show to receive their instrument. Best of luck to them!). The Ukulele assisted closer had to be one of the best songs of the show though, featuring a very extended coda with Thurston wrapping the microphone cable around his neck with tortured shouts of the title, Kim having a try at the indulgent feedback debauchery that the band is so infamous for and Lee comically swinging his guitars around by a drumstick wedged under the strings, one by one snapping all the strings off seven or eight guitars with a satisfying screech.

Up against a 10:30 curfew, the band ended its main set pretty quickly—the band lunched into a grossly sensual “Drunken Butterfly” after Thurston prophesized that a giant rattlesnake would poke its head over Manhattan and spray LSD over the crowd, turning all attendants into women, and talked about a local Connecticut motorcycle gang from the ‘70s called the Charter Oaks—but came on for three separate encores of deep cuts. These oldies were a rare treat, and it was very interesting to think about how this band is now twice as old as they were when they recorded their ’83 debut, but they still put on such a fiery live show of the same snotty, noisy masterpieces.

The venue allowed for a sublime view of the famous New York City sunset, but a glance over the shoulder to take it all in was pretty difficult considering the unruly royalty making a spectacle of the stage in front of us.