It wasn’t quite on the order of presenting German musical terrorists Einsturzende Neubauten in a remote desert canyon, as some enterprising promoters did a few years ago. But having New York noise heroes Sonic Youth play under the stars beside a lake, albeit a polluted one, ranks up there in L.A. concert history’s annals of inspired incongruity.
Sonic Youth, a product of SoHo art-scene experimentation and punk-rock intensity, with its disturbing currents, confrontational aesthetics and steadfast political radicalism, would seem more suited to the lofts where it began and to the ballrooms to which it graduated after becoming America’s consensus top underground band a few years ago.
But the natural setting of the Castaic Lake Recreation Area didn’t detract from the quartet’s performance on Saturday, unless you consider rock-hall sweat and suffocation essential to the experience.
Sonic Youth isn’t much into elaborating the dark mystique of the music these days anyway, and Saturday they came off as friendly and accessible personalities amid their usual controlled guitar chaos and disquieting social and psychological explorations.
Mostly, they seemed like a band that wanted to rock hard, and they emphasized their driving, accessible side without sacrificing complexity or substance. Centering the set on songs from their new album “Dirty,” Sonic Youth provided a searing demonstration that its growing popularity and its affiliation with a major record company haven’t compromised its music.
Adopting Lou Reed’s twangy drawl and a throbbing riff on “Sugar Kane” (the latest item for the “rock songs about Marilyn” file), the band came as close as it ever has to the sound and spirit of its prime forebear the Velvet Underground. Bassist Kim Gordon dedicated the edgy psychedelia of “Drunken Butterfly” to artist Mike Kelley, whose own complementary vision of deep-rooted obsessions provides the visuals on the “Dirty” album package.
As always, though, the real fun was the instrumental fury, and, coming through a speaker system of remarkable clarity, the band sounded both fearsomely tight and utterly spontaneous. Thurston Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars sounded as if they were strung with live wires, and their mighty clashes rang with dissonant majesty.
Fans tend to worry--often with good reason--when dissident forces strike deals with the power structure, but Sonic Youth has come through two major-label albums now and remained a worthy standard-bearer, its integrity, independence and creative juice still as strong as ever.
Second-billed Mudhoney’s uneven set was memorable mainly for the materialization of Nirvana’s reclusive Kurt Cobain, who preceded his Seattle homeboys with a solo acoustic song and later sat in on the encore. Pavement opened the show, the second concert at a site whose surreal, prison-camp vibe and traffic difficulties make the Hollywood Palladium seem like paradise.