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A Consumer Guide to SONIC YOUTH Live Albums
by Joe Yanosik
Two middle class art students and a punk rock fan with a shared attraction to the bohemian promise of lower Manhattan (as well as the Velvet Underground and other kool things), Sonic Youth came together in 1981 and soon evolved from an experimental avant-punk outfit into one of the world's greatest rock bands -- mainly by expanding the vocabulary of the electric guitar. Famous for modifying cheap guitars with alternate tunings specific to a single song, they are the exalted godfathers of indie rock -- cool NYC hipsters who invented "alternative" a decade before it broke on commercial radio thanks to their DGC label mates Nirvana who were only the most famous of the many bands they paved the way for.
Though they never achieved the commercial success of Nirvana, the albums they released during their 30-year career comprise one of the most extraordinary discographies in rock. Once drummer Steve Shelley joined in 1985, the band (Thurston Moore -- guitar/vocals, Kim Gordon - bass/guitar/vocals, Lee Ranaldo -- guitar/vocals) produced an album every two years until ceasing operations in 2011 when Kim and Thurston's marriage dissolved, and aside from the avant-garde experiment Goodbye 20th Century, not a single one was less than excellent. (NYC Ghosts & Flowers haters are hereby directed to give that one another try.)
In addition to their incredible studio album legacy, Sonic Youth will go down in history as one of the most amazing live bands of all time and their concert recordings merit serious attention. Although they only released a handful of official live albums while still active, over a dozen more complete concerts have recently been made available via their bandcamp page.
One sad truth about live music is that not every performance is worthy of a live album. It's rare that a single show is compelling from beginning to end, not to mention free of wrong notes or false starts, especially in rock music. Live jazz albums tend to be more reliable -- think of masterpieces like Sonny Rollins' G-Man or Monk's Misterioso. Not to say it doesn't happen with rock. Winners like Nirvana's Live at Reading and Ramones' It's Alive do exist but they're the rare exception. Even classic live albums like Before the Flood and Live/Dead were assembled from two or three nights of shows. It's not surprising then that the following concert recordings are far from perfect -- but that doesn't mean select performances can't be highlighted or that certain shows don't stand out. How many versions of "The Sprawl" do you need? Start deciding here.
NOTE: This guide includes all official Sonic Youth live albums to date and was initiated when the band added a dozen complete concerts in digital download format to their bandcamp page (sonicyouth.bandcamp.com) late last March, all of which had previously been available exclusively on nugs.net. It skips such renowned bootlegs as Walls Have Ears (a murky 2-LP record of their acclaimed 1985 UK tour worth seeking out for the cover art alone) and the Brighton Beach Party tape (see the video on YouTube).
Live in Venlo 1983, Live at the Continental Club 1986 and Blastic Scene (Live in Lisbon 1993) were all previously available only via the Sonic Youth fan club (as CDs) but are now band-sanctioned "official bootlegs" that are currently available digitally via the band's bandcamp page. Live in Moscow 1989 is a newly released band-sanctioned bootleg which features decent performances but inferior sound quality. The Sonic-Death cassette of live juvenilia is long out-of-print but you won't miss anything if you die before hearing that one.
Albums are listed in chronological order of date of recording, as opposed to date of release.
Sonic-Death: Sonic-Youth Live (Early Sonic 81-82) (Ecstatic Peace! cassette 1984) 68 mins. DUD
(Over)Kill Yr Idols (Forced Exposure 7" vinyl single 1985) 7 mins. Once a giveaway to Forced Exposure subscribers, now a rare collectable, this 45 (containing two songs from a Berlin show on 10/30/83) is primo live SY. The A-side "Making the Nature Scene" is already the concert highlight it would remain for their entire career with Kim Gordon chant-shouting the lyrics over the catchy bass riff and tribal drum beat until those eerily quiet guitars ignite and blast off midway through. The B-side "Kill Yr Idols" (here charmingly re-titled "I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin' Dick" in reference to the Dean of American Rock Critics whose negative reviews of the band's early albums had riled the ire of this media-savvy band) is even better. Scarier and wilder (and longer) than the version on the Kill Yr Idols EP, it's an awesome performance featuring guitar tones stretched into unnatural shapes, intense feedback, bass strings being slammed into submission and a brutal rhythm attack that revs up faster and faster into a tension-building rave-up with a truly maniacal vocal by Thurston Moore screaming "Kill yr idols/Sonic death/It's the end of the world/Your confusion is sex" over it all. If Sonic Youth had broken up after making this single, they would still be remembered today -- it's as much an indie noise-rock classic as Black Flag's "Louie Louie" or Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick" or Flipper's "Sex Bomb". Only 1,246 copies made (featuring picture sleeve art by Raymond Pettibone) so nowadays it's easier to find a digital facsimile online. Just make sure to download the Forced Exposure versions -- and turn it up! A-
Live in Venlo 1983 (Sonic Death 1995) 46 mins. DUD
Smart Bar: Chicago 1985 (Goofin' 2012) 66 mins. CHOICE CUT: "Brother James."
Live in Yugoslavia 1985/1987 (sonicyouth.bandcamp.com 2020) 49 mins. CHOICE CUTS: "Schizophrenia", "Into the Groovey."
Live at the Continental Club 1986 (Sonic Death 1992) 51 mins. CHOICE CUTS: "Kill Yr Idols," "Death to Our Friends."
Trenton, NJ -- City Gardens -- May 22, 1987 (nugs.net 2019) 49 mins. On the superior Hold That Tiger recorded 5 months later, you can appreciate their alternate tunings -- here, on a dozen Sister songs, they're often just out of tune. ("Stereo Sanctity", "Hot Wire My Heart") *
NOTE: This album is titled Live at City Gardens 1987 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Hold That Tiger (Live at Cabaret Metro 1987) (Goofin' 1998) 59 mins. This fiery Sister-era show, self-released by the band in '91 and then re-mastered in '97 for improved sound, remains incontrovertible proof of how fast and punk they once were (even without the Ramones encore), and how lucky we are they kept evolving. ("Expressway to Yr Skull," "Pipeline/Kill Time," "Tom Violence") ***
NOTE: This album was pitch- and tempo-corrected when it was rereleased on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page in May 2020.
Chicago, IL -- Cabaret Metro -- November 5, 1988 (nugs.net 2018) 71 mins. Not-bad-sounding audience tape from start of the tour promoting the just-released Daydream Nation, but apart from an incandescent "Candle", other live renditions of these songs shine brighter. ("Candle", "Eric's Trip") *
NOTE: The cover art incorrectly states the date of the show as November 11, 1988. This album is titled Live at Cabaret Metro 1988 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
New York, NY -- CBGB -- December 13, 1988 (nugs.net 2018) 55 mins. With the same set list as the 11/5/88 Chicago show right down to the Stooges encore, you could justifiably attribute this show's superiority to a month on the road and better sound -- or just figure Our Heroes were extra proud to show off their new songs at their old haunt. ("The Sprawl", "Eliminator Jr.", "The Wonder") ***
NOTE: This album is titled Live at CBGB's 1988 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Live Daydream (Geffen 2007) 64 mins. Stashed away on Disc Two of the 2007 Deluxe Edtion reissue of Daydream Nation resides one of Sonic Youth's best live albums. Celebrating and preserving for posterity their historic and influential tour which ran from fall 1988 to summer 1989, it was constructed by cherry-picking strong live renditions of every Daydream track recorded at six different concerts including the 1988 Cabaret Metro and CBGB gigs reviewed above but with half taken from two European shows from March 1989 when the album had already begun to achieve critical acclaim. The songs are in different order than on the studio album yet in both cases blend together in one big wave of sound -- only here, random feedback and audience noise add to the ambience and the excitement. Apart from "The Sprawl" with its dramatic intro and the explosive "Silver Rocket" with its wild guitar/drum interlude, these versions are a minute or two faster than their studio counterparts -- aggressive, heated, intense -- yet always the anthemic melodies make themselves heard (and felt). Steve Shelley's drumming is fierce throughout as he propels the squall forward. From Kim Gordon's best-in-show vocals on "Cross the Breeze" to Thurston Moore's fretwork on "Candle" (from Cabaret Metro) to the band's noisy groove on "The Wonder" and "Hyperstation" (both from CBGB) to "Eliminator Jr." with its superfuzz ZZ Top riff to "Total Trash" with its two-minute avant-punk prelude and off-the-rails finale, this is a powerful and impressive document of the band at an early peak. A
Live in Moscow (Feelee 2019) 66 mins. CHOICE CUT: "Silver Rocket."
NOTE: This album is titled Live in Moscow 1989 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Irvine, CA -- Crawford Hall -- November 3, 1990 (nugs.net 2019) 69 mins. Well-recorded show from the Goo tour, remixed in 2005 for projected live album release but then shelved until 2019, it benefits from its multi-track source tapes and shiny remix but the performances are hit or miss as the band adapts their art-punk past to their alt-rock future. ("Dirty Boots," "Kill Yr Idols") **
NOTE: This album is titled Live in Irvine 1990 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page. Five tracks from this show (in the original mix) were released in 1991 on the "Dirty Boots" maxi-single.
Live in Bremen 1991 (sonicyouth.bandcamp.com 2020) 67 mins. CHOICE CUTS: "Mary Christ," "Expressway to Yr Skull."
NOTE: This album was previously released in 1994 as a limited-edition fan-club-only picture-disc. This 2020 download release includes five additional tracks from the concert not on the 1994 LP. Sonic Youth's Europe '91 tour with Nirvana is documented in the film 1991: The Year Punk Broke.
Live at Brixton Academy 1992 (sonicyouth.bandcamp.com 2020) 87 mins. Savage show from the peak of grunge features crisp drums, buzzing guitars and crystal clear vocals as the band attempts to duplicate DIRTY without the taming effects of Butch Vig's retakes and post-production tricks. ("Sugar Kane," "Dirty Boots," "Schizophrenia") **
NOTE: Portions of this album were previously broadcast live by the BBC on December 14, 1992.
San Francisco, CA -- The Warfield -- March 5, 1993 (nugs.net 2019) 86 mins. CHOICE CUTS: "Catholic Block," "Sugar Kane," "Theresa's Sound World."
NOTE: This album is titled Live at the Warfield 1993 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Blastic Scene (Live in Lisbon 1993) (Moneyland 1995) 71 mins. Supersonic classics plus previews from the not-yet-recorded Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, as played to a few hundred lucky fans in a Lisbon bull ring -- and if some of the new songs are still works-in-progress, others are already works of art. ("Self-Obsessed & Sexxee," "Cotton Crown," "In the Mind of the Bourgeois Reader") ***
Los Angeles, CA -- Veterans Wadsworth Theatre -- May 28, 1998 (nugs.net 2019) 104 mins. Created organically in their own brand-new studio, 1998's A Thousand Leaves was a mid-career high point, as much a masterpiece as Daydream Nation but created by mature elder statesmen and reflecting their more settled stations in life. The album's songs seemed relaxed and comfortable, often slow and gentle, allowing the listener to luxuriate in their beautiful and adventurous sounds. In the '90s, the band had gotten serious about modifying their guitars with alternate tunings and creating songs around specific instruments, and A Thousand Leaves is an impeccable showcase for the music they conjured out of that gear. Here, on a mid-tour concert proudly promoting the album, the songs had become tighter and more defined. Beautifully recorded with sharp stereo separation, the near-flawless performances combine with the tougher arrangements in what amounts to an alternate version of the album. The instrumental title track of 1997's Anagrama EP is a perfect intro to the nine A Thousand Leaves songs that follow where the focus is always on the atmospheric texture of each piece, many of which rival the studio versions. "Female Mechanic Now on Duty", with Kim strumming the hook and growling her pro-feminist lyrics while Lee and Thurston's guitars combust around her, is more menacing. The sculpted feedback on "Karen Koltrane" is wilder. Lee's note-perfect "Hoarfrost", taken at a slightly slower pace, is prettier. "Wildflower Soul"'s blanket of noise more breathtaking, the 10-minute Ginsberg jam more trippy. The following summer, their collection of customized guitars, amps and pedals would vanish when someone stole their tour bus containing the gear out of a motel parking lot. But here, on this magical night, they've got a fuzzbox and they're gonna use it. A
NOTE: Omit the feedback-heavy encore and the first 10 songs fit snugly onto a single (and awesome) CD-R. This album is titled Live in Los Angeles 1998 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Live at All Tomorrows Parties 2000 (sonicyouth.bandcamp.com 2020) 75 mins. CHOICE CUT: "Free City Rhymes."
Perspectives Musicales: Live at Cat's Cradle 2000 (sonicyouth.bandcamp.com 2020) 139 mins. CHOICE CUTS: "Small Flowers Crack Concrete," "Paperbag," "White Kross," "Trio."
Paris, France -- Olympia -- June 7, 2001 (nugs.net 2019) 93 mins. CHOICE CUT: "NYC Ghosts and Flowers."
NOTE: This album is titled Live at L'Olympia 2001 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Chicago, IL -- Cabaret Metro -- August 17, 2002 (nugs.net 2018) 87 mins. Following the 1999 theft of their customized gear, the band's sound changed as they resorted to using older guitars in their possession not used since the '80s. Simultaneous with this sonic rebirth was their renewed interest in avant-garde music, and the results were 1999's Goodbye 20th Century and 2000's better NYC Ghosts and Flowers, both documented on the Paris 2001 show, where the Steve Reich and John Cage noise experiments, interspersed with Yoko Ono scream pieces, feel more like a museum show than they intended, whereas the impressionistic "NYC Ghosts and Flowers" encore sounds alive for its 11 minutes. With new member Jim O'Rourke on board, 2002's song-strong Murray Street was hailed a comeback as was the tour that followed. This concert, while not as amazing as the previous week's Central Park NYC show per my recollection, is well-paced, captivating and features monster performances of all seven "Murray Street" songs as well as older songs from their career, which they'd begun adding to their shows. The sharp, trebly mix allows you to appreciate the guitar playing which sounds neat and clean while O'Rourke takes care of the requisite dissonance with his electronics. Highlights include "Rain on Tin" with its delicate guitar interplay between Thurston and Lee that grows torrential, a sharp, LED-quality "Candle" and, above all, the epic soundscapes of "Sympathy for the Strawberry" and "Karenology". Kim is terrific throughout, but especially on a pretty "Shadow of a Doubt" and a "Drunken Butterfly" that's not pretty at all. A-
NOTE: This album is titled Live at Cabaret Metro Chicago, IL 2002 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Sonic Youth su Tim Barnes: Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui (SYR 2005) 66 mins. DUD
NOTE: This album is titled SYR6 Koncertas Stan Brakhage Prisiminimui on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Asheville, NC -- Orange Peel -- August 20, 2004 (nugs.net 2019) 114 mins. Sonic Nurse live, plus one gem each from their '86-'95 album run, with tuneful riffs and extended jams outnumbering the strange noises, here supplied by Jim O'Rourke's keyboards as often as those spiffy guitars. ("Kool Thing", "Expressway to Yr Skull", "New Hampshire") ***
NOTE: This album is titled Live at the Orange Peel 2004 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Sonic Youth med Mats Gustafsson og Merzbow: Andre Sider af Sonic Youth (SYR 2008) 58 mins. DUD
NOTE: This album is titled SYR8 Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
ABC Glasgow August 2007 Daydream Nation (nugs.net 2018) 111 mins. Daydream Nation was added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2005, which led to the 2007 Deluxe Edition reissue and a 20th anniversary tour where the band played the album in its entirety (and in album order). On this live album, constructed from two consecutive nights, the band sounds fine and yet many of the performances are somewhat subdued, with Thurston's vocals in particular seeming to substitute satire for passion. As with Patti Smith's live reinterpretation of her classic Horses on its 30th anniversary, the Youth sound looser and more confident with the elapsed years, maybe wiser too -- but unlike Patti's 2005 concert, the Daydream songs here seem to lack that show's urgency and verve -- although the outer space-y electronics on "Silver Rocket" are a nice touch. By contrast, the encore's batch of Rather Ripped songs sound fresh and kick things up a notch -- but then it's over. For live Daydream, stick with Live Daydream. B+
NOTE: This album is titled Daydream Nation Live in Glasgow, Scotland 2007 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Battery Park NYC, July 4th 2008 (Matador 2009) 43 mins. Sonic Youth's best live album, and I swear I'm not just saying that because I was at this free concert on that glorious summer afternoon in lower Manhattan. Selecting 10 of the best performances from an exquisitely-recorded 16-song show and sequencing them for maximum effect, it's a strong argument for the theory that SY's last decade was their live peak. Since 2000, the band had been slowly rearming themselves with new customized instruments to replace the stolen gear and by now they'd rebuilt their arsenal, and since Jim O'Rourke's departure in 2005 they'd been adding more old songs to their shows. The eclectic set list here spans songs from their earliest records right up to the current Rather Ripped as well as staples from Daydream Nation which the band had been playing nightly for the past year during the 20-year anniversary tour. No other Sonic Youth album better presents maestros Moore and Ranaldo unveiling the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar. On display, in glorious stereo, is the full panoply of their sounds and effects -- the metallic clangs and feedback squelches of "She Is Not Alone", the power chords that envelope "World Looks Red", the whirrs and buzzes that swirl around "Hey Joni", the tandem strumming on "Jams Run Free", the awesome wall of noise that is "Hyperstation," the extended distortion that opens a searing "100%." Steve Shelley proves with every beat why the greatest bands need great drummers, and Kim Gordon has rarely sounded better than on the four numbers she sings, especially the no-wave finale "Making the Nature Scene" where new bassist Mark Ibold lays down the punk-funk rhythm and Lee plays his guitar with a drumstick. If you could see Kim dancing, it would be perfect. A+
NOTE: This album was previously only available on vinyl to fans who pre-ordered the 2009 album The Eternal, or as the bonus disc to a Japan-only 2-CD edition called The Eternal -- Sonik Tooth, a holy grail that has eluded this fan for years. It was rereleased as a vinyl album and digital download in 2019.
Berlin, Germany -- Columbiahalle -- October 21, 2009 (nugs.net 2018) 100 mins. Stretching out on the sharp, hooky songs from The Eternal, but the tunes would shine brighter if the mix favored the guitars and vocals as much as it does the bass and drums. ("Silver Rocket", "Sacred Trickster") *
NOTE: This album is titled Live in Berlin 2009 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page.
Brooklyn, NY -- Williamsburg Waterfront -- August 11, 2011 (nugs.net 2018) 93 mins. Last (gulp) US show ever (sniffle) features a solid set of deep cuts from across the sonic elders' entire oeuvre, which is fun -- yet leans a little too much on the droning goth-punk dirges of Bad Moon Rising, which isn't. ("Kotton Krown", "Drunken Butterfly", "Starfield Road") **
NOTE: This album is titled Live in Brooklyn 2011 on the Sonic Youth bandcamp page with different cover art.
Per the band, hundreds of hours of live material remain in their archives so hopefully we can look forward to more concerts being released in the months and years to come. Foremost among these should be recordings from their excellent 1995 Washing Machine and 2006 Rather Ripped tours, which have yet to be represented.
In 2011, Sonic Youth went on an indefinite hiatus from which they have yet to return. But NYC is forever kitty -- and angels are waiting for them.
Thanks to the following individuals who contributed to this project in one way or another: Michael Azerrad, David Browne, Robert Christgau, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley.
Updated July 2020