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Dirty and loud and full of subtleties

Sonic Youth
Turner Hall
Milwaukee, WI
July 20, 2009
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Review by Jeff Purcell
Photos by Gypsy Davey

Taking the stage in the faux distressed concert space that is Turner Hall, Sonic Youth must have felt at home in this beautifully dirty venue. They appeared relaxed, sauntering on to the stage at their leisure, Kim Gordon interacting with the crowd while the others settled in to their spots. Then in an instant they turn it up to 11 and launch into "Sacred Trickster," the opening track from their new disc The Eternal. On disc it comes in at 2:11 last night it seemed like a minute flat. In the first thirty minutes they worked half the tracks from the new album and one classic from the 80's. The set and lighting consisted of small square light banks with a grid of bright yellow bulbs set up directly behind the band. Between the flashing yellow light arrays stood large boxes lit from the inside, large figurative scars burned into the face of these monoliths. All of it added up to a stark contrast to the dingy hall. But don't let the bright lights fool you, Sonic Youth's music is not about glitz and glam. It's dirty and loud and full of subtleties.

After coming out quick and fierce they reach a cooling off point in the second half of the sexual political protest song "Anti-orgasm." Drummer Steve Shelly abandoning drumsticks in favor of large felt tipped mallets, slowed the pace and built a solid rhythm on which to float away. This opens up the music to explore more intricacies as the band weaves three discordant guitar parts in layers. This is when the band is at its best, stretching the songs to their polyrhythmic and disharmonic limits not on an endless meandering search for some jam band aesthetic but purposeful, deliberate and beautiful. Lyrically Sonic Youth are conservative, painting scenes sparingly with as little words as possible and at this volume most of the lyrics are indiscernible anyway. Kim Gordon sang, groaned, moaned and yelped half the songs. Remaining vocal duties were shared by guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. Kim switched from guitar to bass and back again. When on bass Kim's grinding in concert with full time bassist Mark Ibold generated enough thunder to shake everyone to the bone. Even between numbers the sheer hum of the amplifiers was enough to stir the contents of my adult beverage in its can.

When it was all said and done they had played all the tracks from the most recent disc except one and half a dozen classics from their formative 1980s years. They skipped everything in their catalog from the 90's and some very strong albums of this decade but in the end the crowd left sated and satisfied. Not resting on their laurels and really giving the new material a full workout, Sonic Youth delivered a full experience with intensity from beginning to end that was more than enough to feel full. At an hour and forty minutes, not too long, not too short, just right. As I overheard one fellow patron say, "it makes for a strange Monday."

Related articles:

Lollapalooza 2006 (Sonic Youth) - Chicago, IL - Aug. 2006
CMJ Music Marathon 2004 (Sonic Youth) - New York, NY - Oct. 2004
The Stooges / Sonic Youth / Von Bondies - Detroit, MI - Aug. 2003
Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped - Album review
Sonic Youth - Murray Street - Album review

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