New York Hammerstein Ballroom

Their current mode bodes quite well for their twenties...

In the mercurial world of rock ‘n’ roll, 18 years is a very long time: the time between when a music fan is born and when she moves out of the house, gets a Telecaster and a [a]David Bowie[/a] haircut, and sets off on her own world-domination plot. It’s the natural law of things, and it gives us a constant supply of new faces who can distract us from [a]Keith Richards[/a].

Most bands that stick around for this long experience the law of diminishing returns. Imagine the disappointing music that might have come about if The Beatles were still plugging away in 1978, or if Sid had lived and The Sex Pistols had kept at it ’til 1993. One fortunate exception to this rule is Sonic Youth, who’ve been figuring out innovative ways to squeeze beauty out of chaos since 1982. They can still rock their old material with blistering authority, and their new album ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ – an expansive, glistening web of poetry and noise that chucks song structures and spirals off into its own ethereally gritty world – continues their more recent avant-garde tendencies. (And despite the plentiful jokes about whether ‘Youth’ is an appropriate part of their name in 2000, they seem to be onto something: Thurston Moore [I]still[/I] looks like your little brother who suddenly grew 12 inches and can barely fit into his Converse anymore).

Tonight’s their first hometown show since the release of the new LP, and their stage set-up emphasises the album’s mix of downtown grit and blissful disorientation. Two huge screens show larger-than-life projections of New York street-corner scenes – featuring taxis, dog-walkers, and meandering tourists – mixed with twinkly hanging lights, waves of underwater-style coloured lights, and occasional blasts of blinding white light. The effect is vertiginous, particularly when you recover from a light blast to see a monster-sized bicycle courier zooming over drummer Steve Shelley.

But it all fits into SY‘s overall aesthetic, where even the most prickly and nerve-stimulating moments are woven with soothing undercurrents. This is underscored by tonight’s setlist, equally divided between new songs and head-clearing older classics like ‘White Kross’, ‘Teenage Riot’, ‘Schizophrenia’, ‘Kool Thing’, and ‘100%’. The older stuff is as hypnotising as it is harsh, given additional textures by Kim Gordon‘s new guitar parts. (Her bass duties are filled tonight by perpetual indie figure Jim O’ Rourke). But it’s the new material – mostly revolving around spoken lyrics – that’s most intriguing, particularly Moore‘s ‘Small Flowers Crack Concrete’, Gordon’s ‘Side2Side’, and Lee Ranaldo‘s epic take on the new album’s title track, which starts off eulogising an old friend and then segues into a guitar snarl that builds and lifts for several minutes, like a helicopter struggling against gravity to get off the ground.

It’s a rare 18-year-old band that can wring that much power out of anything, let alone their new work. Sonic Youth may only have a year left as a teenage riot band, but their current mode bodes quite well for their twenties.