Sonic Youth Guitarist Unplugs For Church Performance

Thurston Moore still brings an array of effects pedals with him.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — While torrential rains and blustering

winds left over from Hurricane Floyd whipped through a deserted Harvard

Square on Thursday night, Thurston Moore calmly settled his lanky frame

into a chair on the altar of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church.

Not about to let a measly hurricane dampen his plans, Moore slowly and

silently buttoned the cuffs of his long-sleeved white shirt, plugged his

Taylor acoustic guitar into a midsized Peavey amp and spoke his first

words of the evening: "Geez, I hope I don't get electrocuted up here

— my feet are soaked."

The Sonic Youth guitarist/singer's rare solo acoustic performance

— aided by a complicated array of effects pedals — was sponsored

by the young Boston label Sublingual Records, which billed the show as

a chance to see the quieter side of the noise musician. The show, promoted

mainly via the Internet and word of mouth, drew a cozy crowd of around

200.

While the set was somewhat more low-key than Moore's usual offerings, it

most definitely was not quiet. And the church setting contributed a layer

of visual dissonance to Moore's usual sonic dissonance.

Dressed in a button-down shirt, jeans with big rolled-up cuffs, and

athletic shoes, Moore sat in a wooden chair with broken slats on a low,

red-carpeted altar. Two lecterns, adorned with crosses, flanked the stage.

The air in the old building was permeated with an aged, musty smell; the

floors creaked as people adjusted themselves in their pews.

Moore was lit not by spotlights, but by dim, dusty chandeliers with their

bulbs focused at odd angles. The acoustics approached perfection, with

the treble sounds ringing high and clear all the way to the back of the

cavernous chapel.

He began with "Empty Page" which, like most of the songs in the set, was

a minimalist piece with no vocals.

It featured spiky, dissonant chords and paired notes, with phrases frequently

repeated or revisited in slightly modified form. The songs began at a

slow, expectant pace, with a single note per measure, and built to a

frenzied and furious level, with Moore's fingers flying over the fret

board, his right hand a strumming blur.

Moore's fear of electrocution, fortunately, was unfounded. He performed

his six-song set safely, although not without incident.

A proselytizer interrupted Moore's nearly trance-like concentration with

a disjointed rant about God, man's place in the universe and something

about "admiring scum." Clearly taken by surprise, Moore stopped playing.

He was momentarily at a loss, perplexed rather than irritated.

Lest anyone think the interruption was part of the show, Moore told the

crowd, "This is not a Fluxus piece, folks," referring to the post-Dada

1950s performance-art movement. Eventually, after repeatedly shaking

hands with Moore, the interloper left the stage.

Moore took a deep breath and said, "Well. I guess I'll just pick up where

I left off." He jumped back in with a full-fledged acoustic assault,

"scritching" his pick on the guitar's oddly tuned strings and using the

heel of his hand for percussion.

For Ryan Mays, a student from Lexington, Ky., seeing Moore perform in

such an intimate venue was a dream come true. Mays, who spoke briefly

with Moore as he set up his pedals, was one of many who sought a private

audience with him whenever the guitarist stood in one place for more than

a minute or two before the show.

When asked what they talked about, Mays laughed and said, "I don't know!

I don't remember! Just stuff. He's my idol! I can't believe I just talked

to him!"

After a film and a performance by local avant-jazz band Saturnalia, Moore

returned to the stage with a Fender Jaguar electric guitar and six

effects-pedals, along with alto sax player Wally Shoup and percussionist

Toshi Makihara.

Matching the bluster of Hurricane Floyd, which still blew outside, the

three musicians set off a storm of noise, with Shoup's sax screeching

into a microphone and Makihara using coconut shells, plastic beer cups,

bicycle tire rims, a Styrofoam cooler, a stuffed animal, Slinkys and

strands of wire, as well as his small drum kit, for percussion. If it

could be done to a guitar or a guitar string, Moore did it to his shiny

blue Jaguar — decorated with a pink octopus — all the while

rocking back and forth from heel to toe, eyes closed, transported by the

noise.

Moore, who released the solo album Psychic Hearts, featuring "Ono

Soul" (RealAudio

excerpt) and "Elegy for All the Dead Rock Stars," said he still

holds out hope that Sonic Youth's instruments, stolen along with a Ryder

truck July 4 in Orange, Calif., would be recovered. The band has said

the collection of modified guitars will be almost impossible to replace.