[24 July 2008]
New York’s River to River Festival started in 2002, or to phrase it in a way that is more significant for our purposes, the River to River Festival started the year after 2001. The Festival emerged from a desire to bring people back to Lower Manhattan after 9/11, and it operates under the idea that the arts can be such a catalyst. As its name suggests, the Festival takes place between the Hudson and East rivers at 10 different locales in the southern part of the island: Rockefeller Park, just below Chambers is the most Uptown venue; the mighty Battery Park, launching pad for Ellis and Liberty Islands, is the farthest Downtown. In addition to offerings that range from a poetry reading that stars Jill Sobule to ballroom dancing by middle-school students, this year’s Festival also features well-known musical acts such as the Avett Brothers, Wire, Terence Blanchard, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. All events are free, though some do require a ticket.
Without a doubt, one of the hottest tickets of this year’s Festival (which runs from May through September) was Sonic Youth’s Fourth of July concert at the aforementioned Battery Park. The free tickets were claimed within 10 minutes of becoming available, and despite the Festival’s best efforts to control their distribution—you had to show up at certain designated location in order to claim your tickets, two per person—they were on Craigslist that same day. Shocking, I know. Bidding hit its peak a week before the show as scalpers demanded up to $60 per ticket. This isn’t an exorbitant amount compared to, say, Springsteen tickets or the Police’s final show at the Garden, but Sonic Youth still charges only $20 for their shows (a little more if they’re in a Daydream Nation full play-through kind of mood), and did I mention that the River to River Festival is otherwise free? The scalpers should have been rebuffed on principle alone, a point that was not lost on the Festival’s organizers. As one representative said in an email, “We feel the SAME way you do about our FREE tickets being sold—it is totally contradictory to our mission and beliefs and frankly breaks our hearts…”
Though not exactly on par with Paul Simon intoning from the Central Park stage in 1980something that “it’s good to play a neighborhood concert,” there is something appropriate about Sonic Youth playing the River to River Festival. Sure, they’ve since scattered to places like New Jersey and Massachusetts—only Lee Ranaldo, who Moore introduced as “Ranaldo from the island,” still makes his home in New York—but just like the Beatles belong to Liverpool, Nirvana to Seattle, and N.W.A. to Compton, Sonic Youth belongs to New York. The first person to license “I ♥ SY” shirts is sure to make a fortune (or at least enough to cover expenses).
More importantly for the context of the River to River Festival is that, though their New York was once the seedy Lower East Side, by the end of their tenure they had roots in Lower Manhattan. A recording studio that they had worked hard to acquire was located on Murray Street, just north of the World Trade Center. As David Browne’s fine new biography of the band, Goodbye 20th Century, discusses, Jim O’Rourke, a producer and musician who was Sonic Youth’s fifth member for a stretch, was actually staying at the studio on the morning of September 11th. He would eventually be part of the evacuation. Ranaldo, too, lives in the area. He fled to Long Island in the wake of the attack, only to return days later to an apartment that was still lacking power.
They named their excellent 2002 album Murray Street, an obvious homage and an elegantly understated tribute. Browne, for one, believes the experience of that morning affected even their music. His description of “Rain on Tin”, for example, suggests this interpretation: “Then the song gave way to an extended instrumental yet one unlike those in the past: Here, Moore, Ranaldo, and O’Rourke’s guitars gradually climbed atop one another, creating a trancelike, dream-weaver quality…it conjured the morning of September 11: When a dramatic Shelley drum roll crescendo came crashing in, it was as if they were replicating the sound of a lovely, sunny Manhattan morning suddenly ripped apart by destruction.” Frankly, I’m not sure I find Browne’s argument convincing—in a book in which he otherwise writes insightfully about the music, this I feel is a stretch—but the point nonetheless remains that, like so many others, their lives were affected in a very real way that day. The fact that they now found themselves playing a free concert on the Fourth of July only blocks from their former studio, well, that’s what the River to River Festival is all about.
Apparently the band didn’t feel a need to represent Murray Street that afternoon though, as they played songs from eight different albums but not that one. As significantly, for those of us who have been fortunate enough to see Sonic Youth multiple times over the past two years, they played only two songs from their most recent record, Rather Ripped. Rejoicing in that album’s under-representation is not meant to denigrate it in any way, but after three recent shows, the predictability of “Reena” and “Incinerate” in the first three songs and “Pink Steam” and “Or” in the last three sapped some of the joy from the concert-going experience. (By the way, “Pink Steam” was part of the encore on the Fourth, and rightly so. It may be their best song since “The Diamond Sea”). When the first four songs were from four different albums—the latest of which was released in 1995—I knew we were in for a good day.
Any speculation that they might play it safe in such a public arena was put to rest when they opened with the atmospheric, minimalist “She Is Not Alone”, a song from their first EP. In some ways, it’s a perfect first song: The opening drone eventually reveals itself to be a block for building upon as the song moves back and forth between melody and dissonance. It’s a song that is both structured and free, the repetition of a single line over and over and over again followed by the occasional noise freakout. If you brought along a friend who hadn’t heard Sonic Youth before, they would have a much better idea of who/what they are after these first six minutes. On the other hand, this is a song whose significance would only be appreciated by a certain faction of the audience. It’s not exactly Dylan busting out “Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread”, but it’s in the same boat, and all the more interesting here because it’s placed at the top of the set rather than buried in the latter-half or the first encore, a place where most postcards to fan club members usually appear. In any case, the second song wasn’t laden with such potential analysis. One of the closest things Sonic Youth has to a legitimate hit record, “Bull in the Heather” did exactly what it was supposed to do: It got the audience to sing along.
Apparently the band enjoyed their recent live revival of Daydream Nation, as that seminal album was well represented with five songs. This gave Ranaldo a chance to do his speak-sing thing (“Hey Joni”), gave us all a chance to claim that we were “daydreaming days in a daydream nation” (“The Wonder”/“Hyperstation”), and gave Moore the opportunity to jump into the crowd and, judging by the sound since he was invisible to all but the first two rows, to run his guitar repeatedly across the security rail (“Silver Rocket”).
But the highlight of the Daydream Nation offerings was Kim Gordon’s performances of “The Sprawl” and “Cross the Breeze”. I don’t know why it’s taken me five Sonic Youth shows to realize it, but she’s actually better in concert than she is on record, and, unlike some message-boarders, I actually do like the way she sounds on the records. But her voice can be thin on the recordings, and though they’re able to elevate it above the frequent clamor of the music by twiddling the knobs, it’s wispier than a voice belonging to Kim Gordon has any right to be. Sure, it can be a nice effect in its own right, spooky and ephemeral as it is in a monologue song like “Tunic (Song for Karen)”, but live, she is forced to provide her own amplification if she’s going to be heard above whatever squeal Ranaldo and Moore are coaxing out of their guitars. If Ranaldo speak-sings, then Gordon speak-shouts, and, to return to “Cross the Breeze”, never to such effect as when she’s bellowing “I want to know, should I stay or go?”
Actually, though the rest of the band was in top form, this was in many ways Gordon’s day. Without a doubt, hearing some of the older material like “World Looks Red” and “Schizophrenia” (which was dedicated to “all the old people, old as gold”) was a real treat. A blistering “100%” concluded the night, but Gordon’s numbers were the real standouts. She didn’t even let the audience down when she forgot the words to “Drunken Butterfly”. She simply stopped the song, disappeared behind the drum kit for a minute (where Moore suggested she was “injecting the lyrics”), and then reappeared, ready to start the song over, hitting the “I love you, I love you, I love you / What’s your name?” even harder than before. (She later apologized for the flub, explaining that the words to the song were actually a collage of Heart lyrics, so they didn’t really “mean anything to me”).
Her final vocal turn of the night kicked off the first encore. It was “Making the Nature Scene”, a song that in its current incarnation sounds less like the No Wave-y version from Confusion Is Sex and more like the beat heavy, scratch-infested version from The Whitey Album, their playful collaboration with Mike Watt that was issued under the Madonna-baiting name Ciccone Youth. Throughout the song Gordon abandoned her traditional twirl in favor of a strut that was as commanding as any of the MC’s at the end of 8 Mile. The woman is 55 years old. Moore introduced her earlier in the night as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She just may be the coolest, as well.
Those fans who chose to spend their post-show/pre-fireworks time loitering around the park/venue could see Gordon, Shelley, and Ranaldo greeting friends, posing for pictures, and talking with their kids. They chatted with the opening band (a reunited Feelies). They removed the access passes from around their necks. They wore the same clothes that they had worn on stage. They drank from paper cups. It was a nice reminder that this was the Fourth of July for them too.