Sonic Youth Guitarists Sound Off On Their Own

Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo play original material in solo spots, ignoring noise-rock band's catalog.

NEW YORK -- For a few minutes Saturday night, Thurston Moore

almost could have passed for a run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter.

Alone on the cramped stage of the Cooler, a small, dank club in the Village's meat-packing district, Moore -- singer/guitarist for noise-rock pioneers Sonic Youth -- played a short set of new compositions, armed only with an amplified, reverb-pulsing, top-of-the-line acoustic guitar.

He started with a few pieces featuring relatively conventional -- though drone-driven and modal-sounding -- singing and strumming. Suddenly, the guitarist, who was casually dressed in a gray pullover and black jeans, surged in a different direction.

With no warning, Moore began to abuse his Taylor acoustic, violently dragging the side of his pick along the strings to create an assaultive, screeching noise. He scratched at the strings for a while, and then began banging hard on the body of the guitar with both hands, treating it as an amplified bongo.

It was just one of the unexpected, decidedly avant-garde moments in the otherwise low-key show. While also featuring a separate set by Sonic Youth's other guitarist, Lee Renaldo, the evening did not include a single recognizable song from the band's catalog.

"I liked [Moore's set], because it wasn't just noise. I'm a big Sonic Youth fan, and I wondered what the acoustic version of that would sound like," said one concert-goer, Haji Hamedani, a 21-year-old Northport, N.Y., resident. Though he enjoyed the show, Hamedani said he had hoped the under-promoted gig, the second of a two-night stand, would turn out to be a full-fledged show by Sonic Youth, which also includes bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley.

The band's latest album -- A Thousand Leaves, which was released earlier this year and featured the single "Sunday" (RealAudio excerpt) -- marked a return to the more experimental sound of the band's early work. It was a change reflected in the band members' solo sets Saturday night.

Part of Moore's performance was devoted to "Dream Investigations," a newly written, multi-part work that encompassed his guitar assault. Throughout, Moore hit his oddly tuned guitar hard, whether strumming chords in syncopated rhythms or plucking out chiming, exotic, single-note lines.

While Moore did sing from time to time, the focus was squarely on his nimble guitar-playing. His approach to the instrument only occasionally descended into an acoustic version of the feedback-drenched fury that his band has always relished.

At the end of his short set, Moore brought out a hand-drum player, who appeared to be his bandmate Shelley, and a turntable artist, DJ Olive. They supplemented another drone-driven, seemingly improvised instrumental excursion with furious turntable scratching and thumping beats.

Renaldo's set, which preceded Moore's appearance, was an even-stranger affair. The graying, bearded Renaldo, dressed in a blue, button-down shirt and green slacks, played a fully plugged-in Fernandes electric guitar, accompanied by avant-garde DJ Christian Marclay and drummer William Hooker.

The group spent its time on stage reveling in pure, atonal, alien-sounding white noise. Renaldo primarily used his guitar as a tool to harness squalling feedback, which he sometimes manipulated with the instrument's whammy bar, in the manner of '60s psychedelic-guitar icon Jimi Hendrix.

Hooker's drumming eschewed anything resembling a conventional beat in favor of non-rhythmic pounding, while Marclay added to the carefully crafted cacophony with everything from animal sounds and simulated horn parts to unearthly squawking and beeping. Some of the sounds resembled effects out of the "Star Wars" sci-fi movies.

Occasionally, the group eased down to near-silence, which Renaldo punctuated by putting down his guitar and softly ringing a set of unamplified handbells.

Marclay, in turn, created a quiet wash of sound by lifting records off his turntable and shaking them in the air.

Some of the mostly seated crowd appeared to be a bit puzzled by the set, and during quiet moments the chatter of concert-goers threatened to drown out the sounds coming from the stage.

Still, when the group brought its segment to a close with something from Renaldo that closely resembled a guitar chord, the response was warm and enthusiastic.

"It was a little different from what I thought it would be, but I liked the show," said Igor Nougovodtu, a 28-year-old fan from Hoboken, N.J. "It's a totally different kind of thing. I thought it was interesting."

There were some dissenters, though.

"That was just bulls--- music, man," one fan said loudly after Renaldo's fiercely noisy set crashed to a close.