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all words and photos: Francis Chung

At this point, nearly thirty years into their remarkable career, it seems fair to say that the second part of Sonic Youth’s name is something of a misnomer. Monday night’s sold-out concert at the 9:30 Club left no doubt, however, that the legendary avant-rock quintet can still bring the noise with a power and virtuosity to which most of the legion of younger musicians it has influenced can only aspire. Currently touring behind a solid new album, “The Eternal” (their first release on Matador Records), Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, and (ex-Pavement bassist) Mark Ibold played an exceptional 90-minute set that showcased Sonic Youth’s ability to combine an rigorously experimental bent with an accessible pop sensibility, and to match its studio prowess with one of the best live shows presently on offer.

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Following an opening set of extremely long, quasi-psychedelic instrumental jams by the aptly-named Endless Boogie, a crew went to work assembling the headliners’ somewhat elaborate stage set, which (continuing the band’s longstanding engagement with the visual arts) currently features a strobe-heavy lightshow worthy of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and colorful backdrops with figurations reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s cut-out paintings and Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries.” Following the somewhat lengthy changeover, Sonic Youth launched their set with the brisk, energetic “Sacred Trickster,” with Gordon singing breathily (“What’s it like to be a girl in a band?”) while Moore and Ranaldo masterfully interwove bright, vibrant guitar melodies with choppy, percussive strumming. As demonstrated right from the first song, the crux of Sonic Youth’s unmistakable sound remains its incomparable guitar work. Indeed, it can be argued that, spearheaded by Moore and Ranaldo, Sonic Youth has done more to expand the potentialities of electric guitar playing than anyone since Jimi Hendrix, crafting a vast aural palette through the use of unconventional tunings and specially modified Fender Jazzmasters, Jaguars, and Mustangs, each designed to deliver specific timbres or effects for specific songs. An arsenal of several racks of such guitars was on hand at the 9:30 Club on Monday, with every band member except Shelley taking turns coaxing from them sounds that spanned the euphonic and the dissonant, the ethereal and the incendiary, the beautiful and the sublime.

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Unsurprisingly, Monday’s set list consisted predominantly of songs from “The Eternal,” with highlights including “Malibu Gas Station,” “Massage the History,” and “Anti-Orgasm” (the title of which Moore announced with particular relish). Although the new material translated well to a live context, it was the selection of older songs that provided most of the evening’s most exhilarating moments. When it erupted midway through the concert, the opening riff of “(I Got a) Catholic Block” from 1987’s “Sister” sounded as invigorating as ever, as did the shrieking feedback from “Silver Rocket” which concluded the main set. Saving its best for last, the band closed its second encore with an astonishing rendition of “’Cross the Breeze,” one of the best tracks from its epochal 1988 album “Daydream Nation.” As Gordon howled and Shelley wailed vigorously on his drums, Moore and Ranaldo’s guitars roared like jet engines, ending the show on a note that was nothing short of epic.

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While this coverage is from the Monday show, NPR live streamed the Tuesday show.
Check out Alyssa’s photos and review of SY in New York this weekend
Our interview with Thurston Moore.
We got you covered.