Daydream Daze

Light a candle witth Sean at [email protected]

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For most artists participating in the “Don’t Look Back” concert series, the nostalgia-be-damned title is pure cheeky irony. An offshoot of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, “Don’t Look Back” features some of the most canonized artists of the latter 20th century performing their classic albums from start to finish. Great but far from prolific artists such as Slint and the Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA have gotten a free pass to bask in their former glory, while the reunited Stooges used the concept to demonstrate that they’ve still got it (live at least) when they tore through Funhouse back in 2005.

But for Sonic Youth, “Don’t Look Back” seems less like a joke. Rather, as a band that has pushed in a multitude of directions since 1988’s Daydream Nation to varying acclaim but consistent determination, the phrase could almost be their mantra. By steadily treading forth, putting out a new album every couple of years, Sonic Youth has proven to be a band more concerned with generating new music than legacy building.

In their live concerts, this has been the case too. Save for oldies like “Schizophrenia” or “Eric’s Trip” sprinkled in here and there, there has not really been such thing as Sonic Youth nostalgia until the group embarked on their current tour of 1988’s Daydream Nation. So maybe they’ve earned a little self-reflection. And surely fans deserve the chance to see an album that was toured before many of them were going to rock shows.

Yet, Thursday night’s show at the Berkeley Community Theatre hardly felt like a conceit. Instead, it was a glimpse of a band stopping the perpetual push forward to confront the album that has become the monolith that towers over them. If there was anything ironic about the situation, it was that Daydream Nation, when it first appeared in 1988, seemed to poke fun at the idea of the mega-album. Originally titled Tonight’s the Day (a reference to Neil Young’s classic Tonight’s the Night), and featuring four symbols for each band member—a lovingly impudent nod to Led Zeppelin IV—Daydream Nation was an album steeped with rock mythology, even if the band now claims that they hadn’t envisioned it ever taking such mythic stature. As frontman Thurston Moore told Filter in 2006, the album was “a celebration of the sprawling wilderness that is musical America … (it) made us famous whether we liked it or not.”

But the magic of the album may lie exactly in its appropriation of cool from other corners of the melting pot. Compared to the cutting Sister before it, or its successor, the relatively straightforward Goo, Daydream Nation feels out of place—a confusing twist in an otherwise traceable trajectory. Its acidic tones alternate between the ragged and the heavenly. The lone candle on the cover, much like the title, seem to invoke the knowledge that we’re going to hear something classic before we even press play. And it is a classic album, though it’s one assembled from a blueprint of conscious design—not from a band who wrote their own rules from scratch, but one that crafted an epic after listening to everybody else’s classic record first. The album invokes images of New York gutters, pulls lingo from William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and lifts gusto from classic rock. And it’s easy to see why it’s become their definitive statement.

Yet whatever baggage the album carries for the band, they played with a steadfast determination that looked like they were doing battles with these songs more than it did revisiting them. “Teen Age Riot” started things off with a slightly relaxed tempo, as if the band members were budgeting their energy for the album’s more trying numbers, like bassist Kim Gordon’s “’Cross the Breeze,” which teemed with energy.

By the time they reached the “Trilogy” suite that concludes the album, the band looked weathered but triumphant. Throughout Daydream Nation’s labyrinthine passages of hazy noise and majestic high-points, they illustrated a focus on nailing the small details—Ranaldo’s immensely satisfying clean riffing in “Rain King,” or the ricocheting harmonics of “Hey Joni,” without compromising a set that was all fire and brimstone. Before leaving the stage, Moore took to the microphone one more time.

“Daydream Nation.”

It would have been a perfect ending for any other band—the day appeared to have been won, scores settled and names taken, but Sonic Youth is too progressive of a band to leave things on a note of nostalgia. As such, it wasn’t a surprise when they came out for two encores. “Next we’re going to play through all of Sticky Fingers,” joked Moore before the band tore through half of another album—their own 2006 super-song extravaganza, Rather Ripped.

The set, which concluded with an enthused rendition of “What a Waste” may not have resonated the way Daydream Nation’s songs did, but the message was clear: They may be able play their old songs with furious energy years after the fact, but in 2007, this is what Sonic Youth is, and you can’t ever go home again.


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