The week between Christmas and New Year is a curious limbo, a piece of dead time between two great blow-outs - or two great anti-climaxes depending on your viewpoint. It is also a week barren of any gigs or live music. So hats off to ATP for flying Sonic Youth over to play two sold-out shows, tonight’s in Manchester and then New Year’s Eve in London.
Opening tonight and playing tomorrow in London were The Pop Group re-formed earlier this year thirty years after breaking up. Four-fifths of the band appear to be original members – with a young buck (second generation?) on second guitar. The appearance of the band may be cosy middle-age (crisp white shirts fully buttoned up, distinguished greying hair and the drummer looks to be wearing reading glasses) but their explosive dub-leaning post-punk remains angry – very angry – and surprisingly vital. So much so there are many young pretenders and latter-day copyists who need to be shown this is how it is done. I wonder if The Pop Group ever played to 2000 people in their heyday?
It’s over a decade since I last saw Sonic Youth. This and seeing over 20 guitars racked up on either side of the stage during The Pop Group’s set only increased anticipation for tonight’s gig. First on stage is Thurston Moore who still looks in his early twenties. Beanpole thin, checked shirt, messy fringe flopped over his eyes, he playfully punches the mic as he strides across the stage. Kim Gordon is equally arresting: figure-hugging off-one-shoulder gold dress and black leggings which has the crowd – literally - gasping. It is difficult to credit these two are in their fifties.
The set is largely made up of last year’s album “The Eternal” plus a few trips down memory lane – specifically from 1987’s ‘Sister’ and 1988’s “Daydream Nation” with a storming final ‘Death Valley ‘69’. ‘Antenna’, dedicated to Ari Up, was a highlight with a middle section in which Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore indulged – but not excessively – in trading improvised bending of guitar notes. Despite the two pauses (cock-ups by drummer Steve Shelley?), the cartoon-punk-shriek of “(I Gotta) Catholic Block” leaves me grinning from ear to ear. But the biggest roars of the evening were reserved for the first of four encores ‘The Sprawl’ and ‘Cross The Breeze’.
As long as you knew “The Eternal” this was a well-balanced set, avoiding any excessive navel-gazing experimentation, and with the band equally at ease playing twenty year old songs as well as newer material. Sonic Youth may have become an institution but they are still achingly cool, remain frighteningly ageless and are down-to-earth and savvy enough tonight to suggest tonight’s crowd should head to Islington Mill for its New Year’s Eve Party. An evening to remind me of all the right reasons why Sonic Youth are such an significant and loved band. Dear ATP, can we do this every year between Christmas and New Year’s Eve please?
The Set List:
Calming The Snake
(I Gotta A) Catholic Block
What We Know
Massage The History
Cross The Breeze
Death Valley ‘69