NEW YORK "It's a ghost in the amplifier," Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore said coyly when technical problems reared their head Saturday at the Hammerstein Ballroom.
The avant-noise rockers are on tour in support of their recently released NYC Ghosts & Flowers (May 16), the latest offering in a nearly two-decade career of combining pop, punk, Beat poetry and art in a package held together by fearless experimental brooding.
The band's hour-long set was built around material from NYC Ghosts, at times transcending the explosive studio versions with improvised soundscapes. Also thrown in were audience-favorite classics that garnered the group its cultlike punk-following more than a decade ago.
Sonic Youth enchanted the quarter-empty theater filled mostly with twentysomething hipsters, punk-rock fans and downtown avant-garde jazz seekers familiar with Moore's experimental free-noise projects with the help of NYC Ghosts producer and special guest Jim O'Rourke, who added dripping electronic synth effects. The group, whose lineup includes bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon, guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley, opened with the peaking, noise-driven improvisation of "Burning Spear" before pausing to begin one of the band's punk faves, "Teen Age Riot" (RealAudio excerpt).
Looking more like the baby-faced character "Rusty Griswald" from John Hughes' 1985 cinematic comedy "European Vacation" than a 41-year old avant-rock icon, the lanky and disheveled Moore launched the band into the open-ended "free city rhymes," which had the sparse crowd silently transfixed during a brief voyage of spastic noise construction.
Throughout the set orange-red and indigo lights fell across the stage while strobe and white lights flickered from behind screens projecting video loops from downtown street corners. Though the crowd seemed to enjoy each song, the momentum of the set was thrown off by the constant exchange of guitars between Moore and the band's crew.
"Did somebody say Axl Rose?" Gordon asked a group of fans close to the stage, in reference to their random request for the Guns N' Roses singer during one of the band's intermittent guitar switches.
"Are you from Hollywood?" Moore asked in response, to which Gordon, lambasting the group's own Los Angeles-based record label, added, "Axl Rose that's like saying Geffen Records or something."
Gordon put down her guitar briefly to weave vocal textures over a pre-recorded loop during the group's reading of "side2side," as well as to unleash a raucous version of Sonic Youth's classic punk-pop song "Kool Thing" (RealAudio excerpt).
"Kim's got alot of energy tonight," 23-year-old Alyssa Sher of Boston said. "She absolutely rocks, dude."
The 47-year-old Gordon wore a short, sparkling sequin skirt and heels.
"Kim Gordon is a goddess. ... I came out really just to see her," 20-year-old fan D. Sanden of San Diego said. "She blows me away every time so powerful and emotional."
Armed with a guitar and trumpet, Gordon and the group skillfully delivered the free-jazz noise of "lightnin'," one of three encores.
"There's a pubic hair on my guitar," Moore said during yet another guitar change, to which Ranaldo quipped, "It's Axl's pube."
The highlight of the evening for most was the set-closing "NYC Ghosts & Flowers" (RealAudio excerpt), during which a droning swell of distorted feedback washed over the audience as Ranaldo offered the lyric, "Did lightning keep you up all night?/ Illuminate the soot and grit?"
Moore pulled the song's frenetic buildup to a close at a rather early 10:45 p.m., though a few fans were actually kept "up all night" by the band's performance.
"I liked them," 12-year-old fan Tenaste Paul said after the show, his first live Sonic Youth experience. "The lights were, um, really, really cool. And they're funny, especially Thurston."