You tend to think of Sonic Youth more as a force of nature than just a band. The New York noisemeisters’ music has become the defining standard for a whole wing of underground rock, where they’re something like patron saints--young bands name themselves after Sonic Youth records.
A product of the alchemy between rock ‘n’ roll’s aggression/release and the art world’s heavy irony, their music expresses social decay and psychological breakdown with harrowing immediacy. Even the most committed disciple of dread might find Sonic Youth a little daunting.
At the Hollywood Palladium on Friday, Sonic Youth canned the mystique and just played like a rock ‘n’ roll band. Lee Ranaldo might have jammed a screwdriver under his guitar strings on some songs, but the set was always hard-driving and forward moving, with Steve Shelley whaling away at the drums as if he were pushing the Ramones.
They weren’t quite as friendly as New Kids on the Block, but there was no studied aloofness: How remote could they be when members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were out in the audience checking out their friends STP, a New York girl punk band that opened the three-act show?
The demystification coincides with Sonic Youth’s surge from rock’s hidden recesses into at least the twilight of the mainstream. The band’s new album “Goo” is the first of seven to be on a major label, and headlining the 4,400-capacity Palladium marked a huge and sudden increase in drawing power.
Does selling tickets add up to selling out? “Goo” might be lighter in theme than earlier records, but there weren’t any apparent concessions to commercialism during Sonic Youth’s 80 minutes on stage Friday. The band hit some amazing grooves as it mounted its massive, burrowing sound, its roars and whoops and construction-site uproar inspiring stage-divers on the physical plane and art students on the cerebral.
For a group of musicians who started as anarchists in the dark, they’ve acquired a few chops. Concentrating like a string quartet as they raced around atop skittering rhythms, they showed the touch and intricacy of a fusion band. The occasional strobe light and projected design conspired with the free-form jams to suggest a Fillmore flashback, and every now and then the players all hooked up and clattered off like a hellbound train.
But they were also true to their roots: The set ended with a raw spasm of shrieking and guitar-smashing, all being shot for what Moore kept calling their “big video.” They haven’t lost their irony either.