Live In Brooklyn 2011 by Sonic YouthRelease date: August 18, 2023
Label: Silver Current Records
Twelve years ago, almost to the day, beloved art-punk innovators Sonic Youth played their last US show. Live In Brooklyn 2011 captures the band at full power rolling out a wonderful, career spanning, set. Their playing flows effortlessly, the band deep inside the music, the calm eye at the centre of their sonic storm. Late in the set Thurston reveals a vision “later on tonight a rattlesnake head’s gonna come over Manhattan, over the river…” They sound ready to face it down.
A couple of months later they would announce the end of Kim and Thurston’s marriage and effectively the end of the band. They honoured a tour of South American festivals, apparently the definition of ‘contractual obligation’ and so this performance has come to be known as ‘The Last Show’. It’s a pretty fitting final chapter, a celebration of three decades of noise in front of an appreciative home crowd. In recent years the band have been carefully tending their legacy, regularly releasing live shows on bandcamp. Almost any time you might begin to miss them there’s another new show or two to check out and get a pacifying hit of that warm distorted guitar rush goodness.
This show has been around digitally for a while but is newly remixed and remastered for physical release. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the previous Live At Battery Park ’08, also an outdoor New York show but featuring an entirely different setlist. Here they draw heavily on early material but play it with an energy that makes it feel as fresh as if they’d just written it. The opening one-two of ‘Brave Men Run’ into ‘Death Valley ’69’ is stunning, followed by a glowing, raw ‘Kotton Krown’.
Their early cry of liberation from the dead hand of influence ‘Kill Yr Idols’ throws up the awkward question of whether we should care about them anymore. How stands the myth and importance of Sonic Youth in 2023? But even by the time of this recording that kind of ‘burn the past, chase the future’ idea had started to crumble or reconfigure post digital atomisation. Sonic Youth are never coming back as a nostalgia trip and they didn’t fade away, the three songs in this set from their final album The Eternal all burn as bright as they ever did. A three decade career and still strong to the end.
There was a parallel commercial strand of that rush towards the new that pulled the sub cultural margins into the mainstream in the 90s. Strange times indeed and unlike many others Sonic Youth survived. ‘Drunken Butterfly’ and ‘Sugar Kane’ here offering proof they managed to still make good work and emerge relatively unscathed from the corporate machine. That a band like them might ever have such a career now seems even more impossible and in that sense they now exist in an anomalous past.
Speaking of anomalies, the inclusion of ‘Psychic Hearts’, a solo Thurston number from several years previous, seems particularly odd. It’s the one time the band sounds slightly perfunctory, as if they aren’t as familiar or comfortable. Across the rest of this set I’m struck by how dynamic their sound is, how much melody there is in the chaos, how interested in the different textures of noise it is rather than just using it as an oppressive weight to batter the audience. They come back out one final time and finish with an extended version of ‘Inhuman’ closing the circle and returning them to the beginning. Into the squall, disintegrating the song.