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Sonic Youth - Roundhouse, London, 1/9/2007

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 28 / 9 / 2007

Sonic Youth - Roundhouse, London, 1/9/2007


In the iconic recently opened venue of the Roundhouse in London, Dominic Simpson watches Sonic Youth in a 'Don't Look Back' show give a dynamic and forceful perfomance of their classic 1988 album, 'Daydream Nation'

Despite its paucity of toilets – at least with the gents, anyway - the Roundhouse is a glorious venue, a circular auditorium with a huge cathedral-like apparatus lifting up the roof. Famous in the 60's for hosting the likes of Cream, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix and Pink Floyd, it’s certainly got its place in rock history. Since its reopening, it’s featured a mix of current music, dance and theatre. So it’s somewhat ironic that a venue famous for big names in 60’s and 70’s rock should host a band whose career has been predicated on destroying and reinventing in brazen fashion the lineage of classic rock. Sonic Youth’s early career trajectory saw them begin deeply embedded in downtown New York’s late 70’s / early 80’s alternative arts and music scene, one which prioritised innovation over technique, and freeform atonality over melody. The grime and dirt of 70’s New York, reeling under the city’s financial bankrupt state and crime, in some ways affected the music of the ‘No Wave’ scene of bands such as Mars, Lydia Lunch’s Teenage Jesus and The Jerks, DNA, and James Chance, all of which were (and still are) difficult and challenging listening; it can also be seen imprinted in Sonic Youth’s dark, volatile early music, with the ‘Confusion Is Sex’ album full of imagery of body mutilation (“take of your mask, take off your flesh”) and anorexia. Despite the brilliance of albums such as ‘Bad Moon Rising’, ‘Evol’, and ‘Sister’, the band's 1988 classic ‘Daydream Nation’, which the group are at the Roundhouse to perform tonight, is still held up as their classic, however – a sprawling double-album that expertly synthesised the atonal, detuned and challenging aspects of their early work with a pop sensibility that would continue with subsequent albums ‘Goo’ and ‘Dirty’. Sonic Youth since then have continued to juggle official releases with the more difficult tendencies of their side-albums, the ‘SYR’ series, thus appealing to both the purists and casual fans. First, though, are Sutcliffe Jugend, an industrial noise duo featuring ex-members of UK controversialists Whitehouse, among others. Taking the stage to blanket sheet metal noise, the singer yells indecipherable abuse at the audience in various poses, at one point affirming “Who’s the DADDY???” It’s painfully loud, and somewhat anachronistic in such a swank venue, but fits Sonic Youth’s policy of choosing obscure support slots. The venue itself, however, appears less than happy, cutting off their set ten minutes before they are due to finish. The duo storm off, enraged. This concert being part of the ‘Don’t Look Back’ series organised by All Tomorrow’s Parties, in which bands’ play classic albums chronologically from start to end, the audience know exactly what to expect when the band take the stage – a fact that has fuelled detractors of the 'Don't Look Back' series, who claim that it fossilises albums, treating them as dead ‘artworks’. In any case, though, when the opening notes of ‘Teenage Riot’ ring out, you can’t help but be swayed. The following hour and a half are near perfect: from the mid-breakdown of 'Silver Rocket', in which the song like an elastic wire being pulled back, losing all sense of rhythm and melody, before the band slowly bring it back to it’s original state (very much a Sonic Youth motif); the drifting guitar oceans of ‘The Sprawl’ and ‘Cross The Breeze’; Lee Ranaldo’s vocal take on the freaked-out ‘Hey Joni’ and ‘Eric’s Trip’; the playful ‘Total Trash’....they even have a sample on hand for ‘Providence’, so that the instrumental track’s lakes of guitar noise and answering machine message are played exactly as on record. It’s played perfectly, and as the band finish with the abrupt ending to the album’s famed ‘Trilogy’ and exit the stage, you wonder what they will do next as they slope off stage. Eventually they return, with Ranaldo quipping “from the last century to the present”, and run through recent tracks, including from their latest, ‘Sonic Nurse’. But what makes things really special is the inclusion of a ‘Confusion Is Sex’-era track, ‘Shaking Hell’, right at the end. In just over two hours, the band have made the connection between their beginnings and their current state, some 25 years later, while detouring into the middle stage of their career along the way. You couldn’t really ask for more.

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Sonic Youth - Roundhouse, London, 1/9/2007

Sonic Youth - Roundhouse, London, 1/9/2007

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