Sonic Youth

Philip Bloomfield 30/08/2007

There's one thing I always regret when buying a record from before my time: I wasn't “there”. I wasn't there, old money in hand, queuing up for the vinyl of Raw Power by The Stooges, sheathed in its cardboard scabbard. I wasn't kicking my heels on the pavement outside a venue when Black Flag hit town for the first time touring the UK. I wasn't dashing home excitedly after college to requisition the family CD player to play Siamese Dream for that magical first time. However, my biggest regret remains that my 9 month old self didn't get himself THERE when Sonic Youth released Daydream Nation for the first time in October 1988. 19 years on, I can make amends.

The Roundhouse feels half empty tonight. Maybe it's the spectacularly high domed ceiling, but the place doesn't hum and throb the way a normal venue does before a gig of this magnitude. The stage is empty apart from a velour toned backdrop of that solitary candle, and for a minute the combination of a sparse crowd and simple stage fools you into thinking this was a rookie band on their first tour. Instead, you're a rookie spectator at a routine run-out for alternative warhorses who should probably have been put out to stud long ago. Muffled hellos to friends precede nervous, overcomplicated conversation. Why are you nervous? You're not the one who's playing tonight!

Fast forward 30 minutes and a 100% increase in venue population, and it all kicks off. “Teenage Riot” heralds a middle aged riot of sorts front centre; a wall of spectacles, sweat, bodies, paunches and spindly limbs all heeding the call to tear it up in a hypernation. A glimpse of a grinning, floppy haired Thurston Moore cutting through the air with a heavily customised guitar swirls through the sea of extended forearms. Glance to centre, and Kim Gordon is cool and icy as ever. She's looking anywhere but the crowd, daring you to watch her and not the semi-epileptic spasming of Lee Ranaldo as he wrenches ebb and flow from his six string. For 6 minutes and 58 seconds, this is over and above the fabled “right stuff”.

No pauses. No jokes. This is a serious occasion. You just wish the body behind you would work that out and stop screaming “WOO” over the metallic chug and shudder of “Silver Rocket”. The juggernaut is slowing, struggling to clamber over the preordained nature of the set list. But that doesn't matter, 'cause “The Sprawl” is just over the hill and into the valley, sadly eschewing the cataclysmic, slowly declining whir of the recorded version in favour of industry level grind and clank. It's still fucking great, mind: “Are you for sale? FUCK YOU!” Then we're tumbling downstream over waterfalls of guitar lines, headlong into a deliciously muddied, voice straining version of “Cross The Breeze”. That's one of the best opening quartets to an album ever that you're hearing live, dispatched with consummate ease.

That's the problem tonight though. There are great moments - a twitching, stop/start thrashing of “Total Trash” certainly emphasises that - but it all feels too offhand, too muted, too…easy. It's as though this has happened a thousand times, from the blank looks on Kim and Thurston's faces at times. There's a crowd literally chafing at the bit in front of them, but they seem to be playing to an empty room. An empty room with too much bass and a slightly muddy sound. Granted every chord, strike and yelp is perfectly in time, but this only adds to the recital-like atmosphere onstage. Offstage it's pandemonium for all 74 minutes of the time capsule.

Maybe time capsules are better left sealed, on this evidence. It's far from average, in fact by any other band's standards it's a brilliant performance. But still disappointment, the desire for something more. Searing versions of “Kissability” and the epic “Trilogy” are breathed new life towards the end, and I bet all the band could see as the last wave of feedback faded was hundreds of shining white grins. The sense of opportunities missed remains, although more on your side - “Why didn't I enjoy that more? It was great. Wasn't it?” On reflection, what remains is a single overriding impression: the impossibility of ever recreating the very first time the softly whispered vocals of “Teenage Riot” ever churned the air near your ears. Oh, to have been there tonight to hear Daydream Nation for the very first time ever…

(Note: They played two encores. They really do care. They even ended with “Schizophrenia”. This writer smiled. A lot.)