Live Review: A Bizarre Path Toward Enlightenment: Thurston Moore at 60

Photo by Andy Underwood-Bultmann

Photo by Andy Underwood-Bultmann

Thurston Moore opened Moore at 60 with a conversation with Minneapolis. Lanky and with an admirable air of youth, he spoke as if talking to an old friend: “It was around 1980 when we crept out of New York and went on a tour with Swans and stopped at the Walker,” he said. “That show pretty much funded the rest of our tour.” After all these years, he’s not so jaded that he’s unwilling to chat. Behind Sonic Youth (and the fascination with just what the hell happened to punk in the last 40 years) is just a regular dude who wants to put on a good show.

But we’re still fascinated. The show was frustrating and grating as much as it was beautiful and mesmerizing. Very little of it was sonically pretty. From the exasperating and wonderful sounds of crys cole to the trio of bassist Brian Gibson, guitarist James Sedwards, and drummer Steve Shelley, most of the performances were mired in dissonance. When cole’s moans and sighs briefly occupy the pristine-sounding McGuire Theater, it’s more like an intimate whisper in your ear than a song.

The idea of a “song” was nearly absent. Moore and Nels Cline’s opening set foretold what was to be expected. Having collaborated as early as 1997’s Pillow Wand, there was a lofty conversation happening during their 15-minute set. With so many combined decades of destroying the guitar and piecing it back together, you get the idea that they could in fact be bored of the instrument, but the opposite of this could also be perceived. Once you get the image of Moore dragging his headstock across the floor while Cline puts his face between pickups in your head, you’ll wonder how the two have managed to keep their craft so boundary-pushing at this late of a stage.

The dismantling of conventional guitar use, facilitated by modded Fender Jazzmasters, was pervasive throughout the duo set and effectively dodged the usual need to retune or take a regular-ass solo. No, those are not idioms that Cline or Moore have operated in outside of their respective rock bands for some time. The set was a 70/30 split between mind-blowing invention and pissing contest, either of which still makes for a compelling show. The obtuseness of the guitar sound was complemented well by the image of the two. It’s not often you’ll see a 60-year-old man toss his hair around like he’s just starting Sonic Youth, but Moore still moves about with jerky freedom. The two are almost as tall as they are talented, so seeing Cline whack his science experiment in between strums is as humorous as it is musically absurd.

The pair weren’t all that Moore at 60 had to visually offer. The Gibson, Sedwards, and Shelley trio had an accompanying video by Eva Prinz that did more than soundtrack their post-rock onslaught. It hinted at the origin of art itself, complete with subatomic particles floating in a void only made physical by the trio. This was an apt segue into Anne Waldman’s hair-raising set. A lifelong poet and collaborator of Moore’s for a dozen years, her piece “Off World” was an ode to the beginning of art and consciousness. It was also a Philip K. Dick–like image of what our society could end up becoming should we continue on our current path. Waldman’s performance was heavy set with emotional resonance whether she sung or growled at the audience. Compared to Moore’s laid-back presence, Waldman’s poetry was immediate and demanding, making the pixelated image of Lou Reed on the back of her sweatshirt more ominous than deferential.

Moore’s choice to invite the New York stalwart Waldman was proof of his exaltation for our town, but inviting Twin Cities–based artists Dameun Strange and Danez Smith to the showcase was an ace in the hole. Smith’s humor added a healthy dose of levity to the avant seriousness. “I did what anyone would do when Thurston Moore invites you to perform: I smoked a bunch of weed and listened to some Sonic Youth records.” They went from an uplifting tale about blowjobs to a piece simply titled, “The Poems,” where Smith armed themself with words, mailing poetry to corrupt leaders instead of pipe bombs. Moore and Sonic Youth in general never operated within the confines of normal society, and Smith’s inclusion is a clear corollary.

Smith was a palate cleanser for another guitar onslaught. Moore’s touring band—along with Shelley, Sedwards, and My Bloody Valentine’s Deb Googe—took the ingredients from the rest of the show and added volume. The piece took up the better part of an hour, moving fluidly through several minutes of minimalistic structures and a pulsating chorus of 30 strings across three guitars. The setup itself asked as many questions as the Cline/Moore collab, but bedded them down much faster. This was major-key music that you could enjoy on a non-intellectual level.

Like listening to the final trio of songs on Daydream Nation, you’re on the edge of your seat wondering if what’s onstage is the finale. But, the band made sure to give each each guitar idea plenty of time to thrive in repetitive polyphony. The dynamics were enough to fry one of Moore’s amps mid song, requiring a stagehand to come out and replace it on the spot. The flub worked so well it almost felt staged. Seldom does a tube amp call its death rattle in the middle of a piece, but even more rare is the kind of artist that has a backup of the same amp, ready to jump on stage should the blistering volume require it.

Anyway, despite the oppressive loudness, Moore’s band kept everyone in their seats. There’s a power in repetition that’s often featured in electronic music that Moore has translated well to punk rock. Once the ear hears these overtonal waves of music for so long, the mind begins to wander. However, a small change in the composition is enough to bring the senses back into exalted mode. A simple move from 16th-note patterns to regular strums becomes something enlightening. Though no Sonic Youth material was featured, the piece was a stark reminder of the New York scene that birthed the band; a movement that waged revolutionary war against standard song structure.

The band’s blocking was also artful in a punky, accidental way. Googe’s guitar is nearly as big as she is, offering sharp relieve opposite the still-awkward-after-all-these-years image of Moore as he towers over his 12-string. Rounding out their semicircle is Shelley, whose metronomic playing made a case for his being one of the best rock drummers in modern consciousness. Although he was often quieter than the guitar sprawl, he had a wonderful way of pushing the band forward without pushing the meter. Sedwards, however, chose to stand apart from the others, making the four-person shape as polygonal and angular as the songforms. Still, the band was able to nimbly take cues from Moore. Seeing so many smooth transitions across such a long song was truly baffling, and it solidified the bands chops and almost alienated the crowd: “Look how in sync we are, damnit!”

However, the force of Moore’s band and the sonic bath the crowd received was proof that they aren’t just in it for themselves. It’s actually a kindness that the quartet put us through something so challenging. Like getting to the opposite end of Swans’s Soundtracks for the Blind or Can’s Tago Mago, you get a reinvigorated sense of music as both a great communicator of feeling and a bizarre yet succinct path towards enlightenment.

After setting out decades ago with the difficult idea in mind that noise and repetition were as powerful as melody, it’s a miracle Moore’s guitar playing has lived such a rich life. Moreover it’s incredible that Moore still enjoys playing the guitar. It’s evidenced not only in his stage presence, but in that his recent records are really great. Last year’s Rock and Roll Consciousness sounds at first like a throwaway title, but it is incidentally one of the most honest things a guy like Thurston Moore could title a record.

He still plays, and, almost more importantly, he still listens. While he accompanied Waldman, you could see in his eyes a deep admiration for her words and art. To boot, he admires Minnesota, not just when he deigns to bring us his birthday party but as he hangs around the merch table to chat, well after the end of the show. We salute him for his contributions just as he saluted us for helping fund his DIY tour almost 40 years ago. Not only does punk have no genre, it has no age.