Sonic Youth : Live in Brooklyn 2011

Sonic Youth live in Brooklyn 2011 review

Facing the harsh summer sun as it disappeared over the East River on Aug. 12, 2011, Sonic Youth delivered a blistering live performance that a lucky few fans got to experience in person. That show, at the outdoor Williamsburg Waterfront venue, represents the noise rock outfit’s unofficial “last show,” as their devotees have come to call it. The Brooklyn performance was certainly their last in the U.S., coming three decades after the band formed. Soon after, they would fly to São Paolo, Brazil, for a gig at the SWU Music and Arts Festival, then split up for good Nov. 14 that year.

At the literal end of Sonic Youth’s 30-year career as noise-rock darlings, Live in Brooklyn 2011 represents a band—vocalist/guitarist Thurston Moore; vocalist/guitarist Kim Gordon; bassist Mark Ibold; vocalist guitarist Lee Ranaldo; and drummer Steve Shelley—at its strongest, even at their breaking point, when inner tensions were pulled tight (guitarist Lee Ranaldo called the show that summer evening a “pretty magical, if kinda weird day.”)

Live In Brooklyn 2011, remixed and remastered into double LP, double CD and double tape formats on Silver Current Records, can be added to a robust slew of live sets and official bootlegs the band has been sharing at bargain prices through Bandcamp since 2020. The group, in recognizing their fans’ thirst, began supporting the underground music community’s desire to recapture for posterity their highly experimental, unique shows. Live in Brooklyn 2011 is a definitive cap to the generous collection of bootlegs which recaptures the singularity of that night, preceded by sets from Kurt Vile and Wild Flag.

Sonic Youth’s experimental avant-garde and noise-rock style was relentless—guitar notes that screeched and clanged, fed by alternative tunings and pounding drumbeats. Still, they needed a catalyst to stand out and secure a place in rock history. That became certain once a surprising London debut in 1983, marred by faulty equipment and an angry Moore, set them apart from peer acts like Butthole Surfers. Through various record labels and personnel changes, the band refined and evolved their early post-punk style, breaking through with Bad Moon Rising and further with Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty. Sonic Youth eventually influenced scores of acts, including Cat Power, Beck, Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine.

Sonic Youth’s sound was indicative of the No Wave movement that was antithetical to the new wave and early punk that was quickly becoming de rigeur on alternative and college airwaves. This jarring cacophony originated in the dark depths of the seedy, lawless Lower East Side in New York City. In a documentary about No Wave called Blank City, Moore, who claimed to have seen the phrase outside CBGB, told Celine Danhier, “We came out of destruction.”

Shelley, who curated the 2011 Brooklyn setlist, according to a statement on Bandcamp, fretted about which songs to choose, but finally landed on a cross-section of tracks from their catalog, a mix of long-retired “deep cuts” including “Death Valley 69” and “Brave Men Run,” which had been absent on stage since at least the mid- to late- 80s. The show also sidestepped most of Sonic Youth’s mainstream crowd-pleasers like “100%,” “Bull in the Heather,” “Kool Thing” and “Teen Age Riot,” though “Drunken Butterfly,” “Flower” and “Sugar Kane,” appear here, the latter savored at nearly eight minutes long.

Further driving the chaos that August evening was “Calming the Snake,” wherein Gordon thrusts her deadpan, spoken-word delivery into full-throated yells and gruff, weary moans. The electric guitar fuzz of “Kill Yr Idols” recalls Jimi Hendrix at his most psychedelic. The abrasive noise and pounding drums of “Starfield Road” leads into “I Love Her All the Time,” another desolate, slow-moving landscape about a man obsessed, driven by the diabolical heartbeat of drums and lengthened, dragged notes that dissolve into the steamy air.

But in 2011, Gordon and Moore’s marriage was crumbling, the band’s breakup a direct result of their personal relationship. Sonic Youth gave it one last go with their Sao Paolo appearance later that year, but it was just color by numbers. Whatever magic they had found was effectively silenced. That the band decided to share this final show indicates they remain in tune with their rocky history, embracing both triumph and discomfort alike.

Label: Silver Current

Year: 2023

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