NEW YORK -- Old Avery Fisher wouldn't have liked it a bit.
As he looked down at the grungy crowd from his portrait in the main entrance of Avery Fisher
Hall in the Lincoln Center, you could almost imagine the old boy turning
fitfully in his grave. "Sonic Youth fucking rules!" screamed a fan from somewhere
out in the cushioned seats that rose like a great hill from the stage.
The exultation bounced around that stately, bronzed, art-deco room as
clearly as any four words that had ever been uttered in the hallowed hall.
The entire motley audience -- mothers with children, children with
children, fathers with mothers, twentysomething hipsters, thirtysomething
professionals -- heard it. Sonic Youth heard it.
And I'm quite sure that Old Avery heard it, too, if for the first time.
It was to be a night of firsts for everyone Friday; and as with the 2,700-
plus Sonic Youth faithfuls in attendance, Mr. Fisher would also
have to oblige to the inevitability of change, or rather, evolution. That the
evening marked a major evolutionary step for Avery Fisher Hall as well as
Sonic Youth was quite apparent.
For Avery and the 121 faces of his beloved philharmonic orchestra that
line those walls, though, it may be quite some time before anyone takes the
next step in that process by inviting anything resembling a pioneering rock
band to their home. As for Sonic Youth, evolution can clearly not simply
be measured in the restraint they showed as they played a series of ambient
instrumental pieces, such as the moody opener "Koltrane," in a shockingly
electric yet entirely fitting manner, preferring to make their point
musically rather than through stage antics and rock banter.
Galaxies removed from their early, thrashing, punk-cum-Velvet
Underground grunge of the early '80s, the hour-long set that night
consisted almost entirely of wordless movements. And considering the
sonic nature of SYR 1 and SYR 2, the two recent EPs off
their own SYR (Sonic Youth Records) imprint from which the band drew
several of its songs, including
"Anagrama"(RealAudio excerpt) and "Hush" on Friday, it seems
that this great mover for an entire decade of alternative, disaffected
musical expression, is going instrumental.
Mind you, these were no saccharine, harpsichord-and-wood-flute
instrumentals. Not at all. The new face of this veteran band, at least as they
showed it that night, was introspective, wandering and ethereal; at times
However, the dissonant harmony patented by Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo,
Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore over the last 16 years was clearly in
evidence as they slashed and jumped around the stage in their ever-Spartan
attire, pulling the sounds from their instruments in new and wonderful
ways during renditions of "Wild Flower" and "Woodland Ode." It was as completely innovative and lapidary as any music they've ever made.
Yet despite the audience's undying attention, halfway into the set, a green-
haired youngster shouted to his shaved-headed sweetheart that they might
not play "Teenage Riot" or "Schizophrenia," or "Starfield Road" for that
matter -- some of their classics. And he was right. Nothing off of
Goo or Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star or Daydream Nation or their most
recent studio full-length release, Washing Machine, found its way
into the hallowed hall.
Apparently, for Sonic Youth, Avery Fisher was not a venue in which to
reminisce of days gone by. Having emerged in this city around beer-stained
dance auditoriums such as S.I.N. Club and Pyramid, Sonic Youth is
certainly aware of the heritage that those storied, bronzed balustrades hold.
It was a knowledge reinforced over the course of the evening, as they
showed their rapacious, if not slightly bemused, fans what the future of
Sonic Youth might look like.
As such, the choice to emerge into their new self upon this most staid of
stages, was absolutely appropriate.
At times, as the crowd sat comfortably and orderly in the subdued serenity
of Moore's sub-aquatic riffs, Sonic Youth seemed on display, lacking the
furious band-audience dialectic so wont of their performances. Heads
shook, feet tapped and some seats even creaked. Occasionally, a fan would
pop up from his or her seat to let out a resounding holler of admiration.
Overall, though, the impression was one of observing a diorama of rock 'n'
roll transformation, the refinement of a generational-angst and the
establishment's acknowledgment thereof.
The applause that rose after each of their songs, including a new one,
"Heather Angel," set for release next year, would begin loudly, raucously
and, after a moment, reluctantly trail-off, as if coming from a white-
collared crowd at a symphony; tittering, polite and absolutely appreciative.
At the end of the set, Sonic Youth thanked the crowd several times before
leaving the stage. The crowd, however, wanted more and they began to get
After a rhythmical exhortation of stomping, clapping, yelling and
screaming, Sonic Youth emerged from behind the curtains. As they once again strapped on their guitars and Moore brushed aside his shaggy bangs for another
go, you could sense that a return to the past was imminent.
Gordon gave off a quick four-count and they launched into oldy, "Sunday,"
off the Surburbia soundtrack, a song whose beat was distinctly
familiar and always welcome.
As they played, a few people in the front few rows stood and danced in the
aisles. From behind me, lights beamed as ushers on both sides walked
briskly toward the stage to restore order. But there was to be no more of
Fans began to pop out of their seats randomly, and as they did, the aisles
began to fill. In a moment, people seemed to be coming from every
direction: running down from the upper levels, pushing their way out from
the middle of rows. The ushers ran toward the pack, but they could get no
further than 10 rows in. The hardcore SY fans flooded the space and bounced like pogos
amid shrieks of delight that echoed off the ceilings. Someone lit a
cigarette. As the song continued, the aisles filled completely, and an usher
stood imprisoned by bodies.
It was a sight to be seen, the world of Avery Fisher for a moment coming
off its axis. A thousand violin strings popped, and Old Avery began
spinning furiously in his box.
Of course, Sonic Youth knew what they were doing.
So, as determinedly as they had begun, they did the only thing possible to
set the axis back straight -- the only thing that would allay Old Avery's
torment: They stopped. And after Sonic Youth had left the stage and the
lights flashed back on, a few solitary shrieks echoed around the bronze hall
as the green, red and blue hairs moved on.
Color="#720418">[Thur., Dec. 4, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]
Color="#720418">[Thur., Dec. 4, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]