The cover of Sonic Youth’s 1985 album Bad Moon Rising is one of indie rock’s most striking pieces of iconography, featuring the silhouette of a scarecrow in a crucifixion pose, topped with an evil-grinning Jack o’Lantern set ablaze against the backdrop of the New York City skyline at dusk. It’s a picture that both vividly reflects the album’s thematic autopsy of the dark heart burning inside the American dream, and the ’80s NYC underground itself, a visualization of the feral noise erupting at night in the shadow of the skyscrapers. And coming from a band that’s hardly lacking for T-shirt-worthy album covers, Bad Moon Rising has remained the perfect avatar for Sonic Youth’s violent collision of primitivism and futurism, and their tendency to invest live performance with all the horror and transcendence of a ritual sacrifice.
A quarter century later, Sonic Youth would recreate that incendiary scene on the shores of the East River—though instead of lighting up a wicker man, they offered up themselves. The band’s August 2011 appearance at the Williamsburg waterfront wasn’t technically their last concert, but it was the final appearance of the Sonic Youth that we had come to know and love: the familial, telepathic, eternally spry entity who could translate avant-garde guitarchitecture into punk-rock abandon and vice versa, led by the world’s coolest mom and dad. Behind the scenes, however, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon were on the verge of ending their 27-year marriage, and once the breakup was made public two months later, Sonic Youth’s seemingly eternal flame was suddenly extinguished with a bucket of cold water. The band would fulfill a handful of South American dates already on the books for that November, a lame-duck campaign Gordon would later describe in her memoir as a “raw, weird pornography of strain and distance.” But if someone were to make a factually sloppy Bohemian Rhapsody-style biopic about Sonic Youth, then the Williamsburg show would be its glorious Live Aid-sized climax—the revisionist Hollywood ending for a doomed New York institution.
Live in Brooklyn 2011 was originally made available in 2020 as part of the deluge of official bootlegs that’s flooded Sonic Youth’s Bandcamp page, but it’s the first live recording from that batch to be mixed, mastered, and packaged for physical release (via Silver Current, the boutique outsider-psych label run by Comets on Fire/Howlin’ Rain honcho Ethan Miller). The special treatment is a testament to the show’s significance in Sonic Youth lore and to the peerless performance captured on the recording. Those who experienced this show first-hand, blissfully unaware of the drama stewing offstage, were treated to the rare spectacle of a band hitting explosive new peaks as a live act some 30 years into the game. But with the benefit of hindsight, Live in Brooklyn 2011 sounds more like the adrenalized fight-or-flight response from a band that knew its days were numbered. As Gordon would later write of the band’s final shows: “What got me through was being onstage, the visceral thrill of performing. Extreme noise and dissonance can be an incredibly cleansing thing.”
Where career-spanning setlists from most veteran bands will inevitably succumb to wild variances in tone if not quality, Live in Brooklyn 2011 dissolves three decades into a holistic 17-track noise opera that enshrines Sonic Youth’s greatest attributes and contradictions: a band that dipped its toes into the alt-rock mainstream without ever planting their feet in it, who rose to amphitheater-headliner status while routinely disavowing the old showbiz maxim of giving the people what they want. The Brooklyn set forsakes the band’s most popular songs to illuminate the darker corners of their discography and build bridges between them. The show came at the tail end of the promotional campaign for what would be Sonic Youth’s final official full-length, 2009’s The Eternal, but the album that dominates the setlist is, fittingly, Bad Moon Rising—the record that first pushed them out of New York and onto the American indie frontlines, and which, here, symbolizes both a homecoming and full-circle farewell. And if that significance wasn’t known to the Williamsburg crowd that night, a rare, complementary airing of 1983’s caterwauling “Kill Yr Idols” feels like a coded, foreshadowing communique.
Thanks to the undiminished intensity of drummer Steve Shelley and the steely rhythmic pulse of latter-day bassist Mark Ibold, the back-to-back Bad Moon Rising bookends “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” and “Death Valley ’69” absolutely clobber where they used to clang, making them natural companions to Lee Ranaldo’s signature psych-out “Eric’s Trip,” the rocket-launching glam noise of 1994’s “Starfield Road,” and the untamed thrust of The Eternal’s “Calming the Snake.” But the connections being drawn here are as much lyrical as they are musical, with Gordon’s ’85-era mantra “Flower,” Dirty’s sardonic Heart homage “Drunken Butterfly,” and The Eternal’s eye-rolling “Sacred Trickster” foregrounding the feminist fury that courses through the entire Sonic Youth canon, and which acquires an even more acerbic edge when you consider the dysfunctional dynamics Gordon was grappling with at the time. (The latter song’s sarcastic quip—“What’s it like being a girl in a band?”—takes on a whole new discomfiting dimension when you know she’s singing it alongside her soon-to-be ex as the ship’s going down.)
At the end of the show’s first encore, Sonic Youth make an uncharacteristic concession to popular taste by trotting out the beloved Dirty warhorse “Sugar Kane,” whose Marc Jacobs/Chloë Sevigny-festooned video proved to be the high-water mark of the band’s early-’90s crossover. The song’s atypical appearance amid a setlist filled with the deepest of deep cuts underscores the sheer improbability of these avant-rock radicals becoming momentary MTV stars. The group’s contrarian essence is further epitomized by the second encore, where Sonic Youth deliver their first-ever performance of the locomotive, Velvets-esque title track to Moore’s 1995 solo album Psychic Hearts—a move that, in retrospect, points the way to the sort of taut and tuneful jams he would later pursue with the Thurston Moore Group.
Then, for their last song at their last-ever New York City show, Sonic Youth revisit one of the first pieces of music they made there, back when the prospect of playing to more than 50 people outside of lower Manhattan was a pipe dream. Appearing on their 1983 debut, Confusion Is Sex, “Inhuman” sports the sort of needling guitars and galloping, disco-not-disco backbeat that reminds you of this band’s roots in the British post-punk of the day. But here, that four-minute track is distended and disemboweled past the nine-minute mark into a free-form noisepocalypse, providing an instant pocket history of a band that quickly outgrew their obvious influences to pursue an invigorating and unsettling squall that was entirely their own. As the embers of feedback start to dim, Moore declares, “With the power of love, anything is possible,” and he wasn’t bullshitting. Love is what made it possible for a commercially unviable 30-year-old band to attract thousands of people to North Williamsburg on that hot August night in 2011, subject them to a setlist of abrasive obscurities, and still be greeted with a rapturous hero’s salute. And once the love between its two lead singers was lost, the very idea of Sonic Youth became impossible.
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