Live: The Next Evolution Of Sonic Youth

Avery Fisher Hall may never be the same after ambient punks go instrumental at show.

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

even rough.

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]