Customarily, rock bands wait until the climax of their performance before they start battering the guitars and summoning feedback from the amps. For Sonic Youth, however, raw electric noise is essence rather than embellishment. Wednesday night at the 9:30 club, the New York-based quintet opened with drones and squeals, setting the raucous tone for its nearly two-hour set.
The band drew heavily on its latest album, "Sonic Nurse," but many of the songs were altered beyond recognition. The vocals were buried in the mix, although bassist Kim Gordon's raspy soprano sometimes penetrated the din, especially during the insistent "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream." While such numbers as "Pattern Recognition" and "Paper Cup Exit" began with identifiable riffs, they soon moved into unpredictable territory.
Guitarists Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Jim O'Rourke played lyrical exchanges and interlocking modal vamps, but they also banged their instruments on the stage and attacked them with drumsticks. During some arrhythmic passages, the guitars sounded like prepared pianos, more John Cage than Les Paul.
Over the course of its 22-year recording career, Sonic Youth has recorded punky rockers and pensive ballads. The latter have dominated the group's recent albums, and were well represented when it performed at the 9:30 club two Augusts ago. Any thought that the band has abandoned sheer clamor, however, was dispelled Wednesday. The show may have overemphasized a single aspect of the band's style, but it did so exuberantly.
-- Mark Jenkins