Never mind the more optimistic mentions. Things change and sometimes fast, even if it does feel nice to hang onto the recent Rolling Stone interview with singer/guitarist Lee Ranaldo.
“I’m feeling optimistic about the future no matter what happens at this point,” he said.
Read it however you might like. Ranaldo is either alluding to his recent solo projects or he could be referring to Sonic Youth archival projects, including: digitizing their discography, editing a tour film from 1986, or culling demos from 1987’s Sister, presumably for a potential release as a deluxe reissue.
Nobody really knows. It could be all those things. But whatever the future may hold, this band has given fans something old made new. The recently released Smart Bar Chicago 1985 (Live) via their own Goofin’ Records has some solid material to soak up: digital, disc, and double vinyl LP.
This performance was recorded in August 1985 in support of their Bad Moon Rising album, at a time when the New York City-based band was still struggling to reach a larger audience. They wanted to make a name for themselves while staying true to their arty and intellectual roots.
The set was recorded on a 4-track cassette, which was later mixed and mastered from the original tape. While the audience sounds sparse, those who were there were about to witness something they had never heard or seen before. Amongst the crowd chatter, you can hear someone say “I don’t know that much about them.”
The 1985 session at Smart Bar was a pivotal point in history.
At the time of this show, drummer Bob Bert had left to join Pussy Galore. Replacing him was the perpetually youthful and immensely talented Steve Shelley. In fact, this show marks one of Shelley’s first with the band. The 14-song set opens with Gordon singing Hallowe’en, followed by the equally dark and foreboding Death Valley ’69. The band’s official video for the latter is always a must see.
Sonic Youth - Death Valley 69'
Most of the songs are from Bad Moon Rising, which isn’t the band’s finest work but plays much better live than in the studio. Gordon’s voice is spot on and the progression of tunes shows the band just starting out on what would be a truly fantastic journey.
Among the feedback, urgency and percussive jams are Secret Girl and a blistering Expressway To Yr Skull, which hadn’t previously been available. They’d later appear on 1986’s spotty EVOL. Another standout is the previously unreleased instrumental Kat ‘N Hat, the noisy The Burning Spear, and the blistering Brother James, which played great at the Rock en Seine Festival in Paris (2004).
As always, Ranaldo and Moore provide a double guitar assault with their unique tunings and distortion. While not polished, the band sounds right and tight, perhaps due in part to the presence of Shelley, whose masterful and precise drumming keeps everything on track while still allowing the band’s special blend of improvisation to shine.
There is nothing new or groundbreaking here, but Smart Bar Chicago 1985 (Live) does provide an oustanding snapshot of one of the most original bands of their time at a point when nothing mattered but the music. As far as live albums go, this is definitely one that needs a place in your collection.
Sonic Youth Smart Bar Chicago 1985 (Live) Rips 8.6 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
No matter how you slice it, Sonic Youth shaped alternative rock on the East Coast long before the West Coast really found anyone to pick up the banner. It's this kind grinding music that truly saved the 80s music scene, even if it mostly existed under the surface as mainstream rock had shifted too far pop.
The best place to learn more about the history of this legendary band is their website. Pick up Sonic Youth's Smart Bar Chicago 1985 at Amazon or download it from iTunes. You can also find the double-sided LP at Barnes & Noble. Who knows? With luck, the indefinite hiatus may not be as indefinite as we think. But if it is, at least the music is timeless.