Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Concerts in New York: The Music of Sonic Youth and NEU!

Summer in New York City is truly one of the best times there is for live concerts. It seems like everytime you turn around there is another free show being promoted. Big shows. Take for instance a little band that's been around for a few years that some may have heard of - Sonic Youth. In 2008 they gave us all an amazing 4th of July performance. In 2009 there was a live in-store appearance at Apple's 'temple to technology' in Soho . This years installment happened on the final day of July this year - an incredible live performance in Brooklyn's Prospect Park as part of the wonderful series that is the Celebrate Brooklyn! events put on by the Bric Arts Media Organization.

A mere one week after this stunning performance, Sonic drummer Steve Shelley was back onstage (again, free of charge to the masses)as part of the Out Of Doors concerts series at Damrosch Park in Lincoln Center, New York City. Much like his primary bandmates, Steve has the time, energy and desire to branch out and involve himself in other projects. For this Lincoln Center event (and a handful of other select shows) Steve teamed up with German art rock pioneer Michael Rother for a reinterpretation of Rother's early 1970's music, which he recorded with the band NEU!. Calling the project Hallogallo2010 (which was the name of the first song off of their debut album in 1972), these shows would be the first live presentations of the music by any member of these influential musicians in 35 years. Filling out the live band was bassist Aaron Mullan. This particular performance was presented on a gorgeous night, accompanied by a truly outstanding light show.

First up, though was the Sonic Youth event. In my own twisted imagination I feel partly responsible for this band actually doing yet-another free live summertime show. After the wonderful outdoor show they gave us on the 4th of July two years ago, I wrote an enthusiastic and heartfelt blog review about it. In February of this year I spotted a notice announcing that Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore would be performing live at the White Columns gallery for his Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal.
Yes - I bought the "limited edition" t-shirt

Bringing a printout of my 4th of July 2008 show review with me to this event (anticipating the possiblity of giving it to him to read) I was doubly delighted to discover that the band's female member (and Moore's spouse) Kim Gordon was also in attendance. Not having any definite goals but lately rarely one to squander an opportunity, I saw an opening at one strategic point in the night (during a break between readings) and summoned up the courage (or just simple enthusiasm) to approach Kim (Thurston was otherwise engaged running the event). After the obligatory awkward initial exchange (though oddly, somewhat relaxed) I told her I wanted to give her something. She said "what" and I presented her with my printout of that concert review from 2008. I then asked her directly if she would read it. I was giving her an out, that if she wasn't going to read it, I wouldn't burden her with having to take it. She replied that "yes" she would read it. Later on in the night (much to my surprise and obvious delight) she still had it in her hand (didn't she have any place to put it? A bag or something?) The point here is that I want to believe that after reading this delightful and appreciative recap of their live outdoor event from 2008, they decided to do it again in 2010. Yes, I am insanely taking credit for their Celebrate Brooklyn! live outdoor show. Well, maybe partial credit. (Or, perhaps none at all.)

The real point here is that I've been a fan of the band Sonic Youth for 25 years. Whenever I become aware they are doing something here in the city (be it individually with their side projects, or as the full band) I will make every effort to attend. The concert they put on at the Celebrate Brooklyn! event may very well be the best show of their I've have ever attended. Understand that I first saw them in 1990. You never forget the first time and that will always be a magical night for me. I also had exchanges with various members of the bands at other artists shows. At one Dinosaur Jr. show (happening around that same time - early 1990's) Kim was hanging out with some friends and I told her about the 15 page handwritten letter I had sent them. She misheard me and said "you sent a 50 page letter?!" I said no, no "only" 15. I then said it probably wasn't all that interesting to read - I said I was being an "immitation rock critic." She laughed. How ironic it is that here, 20 years later, I'm still doing it.

So it's now Saturday night, July 31, 2010 and the massive crowd at beautiful Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York is full of anticipation as Sonic Youth is about to come on.

What we were treated to was a "greatest hits" show, or rather greatest deep tracks show from their most influential (and in most fans opinions, their best) albums. In fact, no song from even 1990 made the set. It was strictly all the classic stuff from 1985-88. Last year the band did an extensive tour in support of their latest album The Eternal. Those shows where heavily weighted with that brand new material (as was the June 9, 2009 Apple Store show).
You needed one of these to attend the Apple show. They were free, but you had to sign up the day before.

Brooklyn July 2010 was very similar to July 2008, where at that show the band featured many songs from their quintissential album Daydream Nation. I loved that set at the time, as they also mixed in some material spanning their post-1990 releases. For instance "100%" and "Drunken Butterfly" from 1992's Dirty, "Bull In The Heather" from 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, "Skip Tracer" from 1995's Washing Machine, and then jumping to their most recent album at that time, with "Jams Run Free" and "Pink Steam" from 2006's Rather Ripped.

However, Brooklyn 2010 included two songs from my all time fave album of theirs (1986's EVOL), when their encore included Kim's sultry "Kiss Me In The Shadow Of A Doubt" and the song that made me forever their fan "Expressway To Yr Skull."

In addition to a number of full song videos, I put this 9 song medley video together, which gives a considerable overview of the band at this show:

What I have always liked best about Sonic Youth is their ability to create and continue to build tension throughout a song. For me the true genius of the band has always been the complimentary (yet different) dynamic between guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore. With Lee being the more serious and (earlier on) more accomplished guitarist - and Thurston bringing a cut-loose punk style. What has remained most consistent about both of them over the years is how they've embraced an artists attitude towards experimentation and mutation. Though the band wrote "rock songs" their complete disregard for the way traditional guitar playing was supposed to sound made an indelible impression on how I perceived everything relating to music since. Re-discovering that their roots were some of my own (Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham), I never completely understood what those two sound pioneers were actually doing. Sonic Youth presented the right balance and mix to my ears. As for Kim's contributions to the band, they are hardly any less signficant. She has combinded intelligence, an artists sensibility, amazingly obscure lyrics, great looks/sex appeal with a punk female attitude. Although possessed with a limited vocal range, she has never allowed this constraint to prevent her from taking front and center on so many of the bands classic songs. Her raspy voice is actually soothing to my ears. Much like Bob Dylan, if you believe in and are fully committed to what you are saying, the listener quickly adapts to the voice.

So I'm dutifully sitting in my seat in the press/photo/patrons area at Prospect Park. It's a lovely night and the people around me talk, eat and in general chatter about what's to come. I engage in a few conversations and then the moment arrives. One song, two song, three song, four songs in - that's it - I'm out of my seat and joining the ever growing crowd pressed up close to the stage. Drawn to the "excitement" like a moth to the flame. That flame is powerful. It pulls me in. I'm standing right in front of Lee and just marveling at how he looks like a superhero up there.

Standing in the center position is Kim. Her stylish presence creates an additional layer of excitement. At one point she walks out on a little ledge in front of the stage and people are touching her leg like she is a Saint. That somehow all their terminal psychic and emotional diseases will be cured if they can have just one touch of greatness. Thurston was positioned the farthest from me (off to the right). He leads the band with a quiet understated authority. On this night his playing alternated between all out aggressive strumming and the cool, controled plucking that those particular songs called for. He's still the primary voice of the band, singing 8 of the 15 songs played (with Kim singing 5 and Lee, 2).

The full set list (in order) Candle, Brother James, Catholic Block, Stereo Sanctity, Hey Joni, The Sprawl, Cross the Breeze, The Wonder, Hyperstation, White Cross, Mote, Shaking Hell, Shadow of a Doubt, Silver Rocket, Expressway to Yr Skull.

In one report of the show I read where Steve's drumming sounded fuller in the mix than on many of their records. I would have to agree that the overall balance of the instruments afforded a clarity not always captured on their recordings, and yes in particular the drums. As a result I could really focus on what Steve was playing (while taking in everything else as well). Being up so close and seeing everything in such detail only drove home how solidly structured Steve's playing is. His use of tom toms to mark out and propel the rhythm is an important element worth noting. I would witness this same quality a week later when he performed with Hallogallo2010.

The Sonic Youth experience continues to have a profound influence and affect on me. I hope they continue to play free outdoor shows in New York for as long as I live. I can't imagine not being in attendance for any of them.

The following Friday, August 6, it was off to Lincoln Center on the upper west side of Manhattan for the aforementioned Hallogallo2010. Though I had scattered associations with the music Michael Rother created with his German art rock band NEU! (I was more familiar with Kraftwerk and Can - two of the biggest names in German experimental music) I was curious to hear how Steve Shelley's playing would fit in with a different band. The discovery turned out to be a most rewarding one, as Steve's studiously structured style added a modern feel to the 30 year old music.

My initial introduction to the music of NEU! actually came by way of a cassette tape trading relationship with a fellow music fan in 1995. During one of our swaps I received a tape titled "an homage to NEU! / Scar Tissue remixes"

Some of the more memorable tracks on it was Michael Rother's "Neutronics 98" (a tribute to Conny Plank); Download's "Hallo Gallo"; Kahn's "Fur Immer" and my fave track of all on there - Sunroof's "Hero."

In anticipation of attending this show, I began the process of acquiring more NEU! music. Though there were songs with vocals on these records, this live show was strictly an instrumental affair. Rother's guitar playing brought to mind the many wonderful ambient pieces that Robert Fripp is known for. Lou Reed has also gone is this direction as well, with his Metal Machine Trio performances of last year.

Throughout most of the pieces, Steve's drumming modernized NEU!'s well-known 'motorik' rhythm, which features a persistent driving 4/4 beat. With Shelley and Mullan locking down the rhythm section to this unyeilding beat, Rother was free to soar above it all with extended guitar jams guaranteed to delight any fan of that sort of thing (present company very much included).
Rother also played a variety of electronic instruments - keyboards and sample generators, from behind a large covered table. During these heavy electronic passages, Shelley made brilliant use of his mallets, creating rushing crescendos on his cymbals. At other points the 'motorik' could be heard via a steady sticks on highhat. On yet another piece, Steve made creative use of his tom-tom's via those same mallets.

The lightshow on the huge screen behind the band added an overall trippy effect. Pulsing orbs and flowing cell-like amoebas alternated with geometric shapes and large splashes of color. Providing visual motion to a music anchored by a hard rhythm, and improvisational ambience.

For those seeking further information, additional background on either of these bands, or would like to hear more of the music from these two shows, check out the below referential links:

My 2008 Sonic Youth show review:

Additional Videos of Sonic Youth at Prospect Park, 2010

Expressway Edit:

Additional Videos of Hallogallo2010 performing the music of NEU! :

Official Sonic Youth website:


Kat said...

A FREE show by Sonic Youth?! That sounds absolutely amazing. And you are very very lucky indeed to have things like this every year.

Thanks for this extremely interesting entry! :-)

DaveCromwell said...

Oh, Kat it *was* amazing. It truly was. There's something about seeing a band perform music that you have grown to love (now over decades) - and to see them do it so well. They are a better band now than they've ever been!

Unknown said...

Nice Dave! X

DaveCromwell said...

Oooh - "Queen of the B-Sides" likes. This pleases me. Thanks, Jenna.

the sunshine factory said...

What a fabulous and intimate look at a truly great band. The love that you express towards sonic youth is you the rock writer/critic speaking for all of us the mass of unknown fans in way that we will never be able to do. Thank you. Also I am going to research the NEU I must confess I have never listened to them but I intend to.Somehow it does not surprise me in the least that you still have the mix cassette your friend made for you all these years later. Robert, The Sunshine Factory

deadmandeadman said...

Dave, you damn well you're gonna rope me in with a Sonic Youth post. As a "first generation" fan i have a faurly large & wonderful collection of SY music. Of all the bands I've seen, of all the live music i've heard.....none other can transport me to that placeless state of music as universe as SY does. Within their sound lurk Cotton candy & razor blades, mountains & whirlpools. "The Diamond Sea" moves around in my personnal top ten all time ever......songs (for lack of a better word.) from anybody, any time.
I like the way you transport me to the park, Dave, with your photos & wit. And your affection for the band & the scene is obvious & infectious. Rock On You Crazy Diamond

DaveCromwell said...

Wow. Such lovely prose from both Robert and deadman. I truly appreciate the kind words.

Robert - definitely check out NEU! I think it will be worth your efforts.

And deadsy - agreed - without a doubt The Diamond Sea is one of the most amazing adventures in sound explorations. You've just given me something else to look forward to! I've never heard them perform this live - so now I want to.

Anonymous said...

Nice review Dave, nice that you've put those 'anecdotes' in it.

Anonymous said...

I wanted more large-scale music features on your blog, Dave- and here's my dream coming true with a big bunch of fresh musical rarities. I'm lucky.

It's great to see Sonic Youth back here again- they're absolutely one of the most creative rock bands ever, their music is simply beyond description. Show me another band that creates this kind of tension, this kind of "natural sound", very organic sound I would say- even their studio recordings sound like live performances. Fresh, powerful, with a space for a little improvisation here and there, half controlled and half chaotic. It reminds me a lot of Tom Waits' attitude towards his own music- you can feel the same spirit here and there, a spirit of "crossing-all-borders-established-by-people-who-played-this-kind-of-music-before". And yes, their live performances, from what I've seen and heard are a total and uncontrolled explosion of this great power and creativity that they posses.

As for Hallogallo/Neu! collab- it's interesting stuff. I'm a massive fan of krautrock with bands like Popol Vuh, Amon Duul II and Tangerine Dream being among my all time favourites. I'm eager to see where this collab takes them to- hopefully this new band will re-animate the good ol' spirit of mysterious and colorful landscapes of classic krautrock recordings which were, probably, one of the greatest achievements in the history of music.

After *experiencing* this music feature I can't wait for another one.

Fantastic job, I really enjoyed it!

IATP said...

I am pretty jealous about Neu! , Dave. You're footage was amazing though. You could feel the intensity building by the minute. Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

I think I best move to New York; Ive decided to become an Italian American. I mean free shows by Sonic Youth ! Christ all we get over here is a free show by Das Beatles, a Teutonic blonde German Beatles tribute band. I'm in the wrong city !

Great video too old bean.

I'll be in NYC soon. May not be possible to meet as I'm taking my 80 year old Dad to see the city he's always wanted to see ! It'll be Sinatra and The Empire State

lebastar said...

Aw man what a show you witnessed... I am amazed about the quality of the videos and specially the audio, great job! And you´re right: the sonics are at their prime, more so than ever. I have been a fan for over seventeen years now, seen them in diverse circumstances and still am jelous of this!!! Thanx for achieving to make the rest of us feel like we were there through the images and words...

Spike said...

Dave, your analyses of Sonic Youth and Neu are accurate and helpful to an uninitiated listener like me, and helped me enjoy the beauty of their music. Neu's sound through your video camera's mike favored the rhythm section over the soloists, but it sounded hypnotic even so. Great post!

Unknown said...

nice post!

Walter Tully said...

Free show?! Amazing! This is what I am looking forward to during my summer. I had enjoyed one free show in Denver. Summer concerts were amazing! Plus Glendale parks and recreations were very nice place to hold such activities. The venue is perfect for entertainment and relaxation.