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Monday, Jan. 4

My dream venue for Sonic Youth would be a 1960s-style cocktail lounge. There'd be casual seating at little round tables with lava-lamp centerpieces and plush sofas overflowing with throw pillows. That way, during the long interludes of feedback, one could be comfortably sipping a drink and reclining in the pillows, transfixed on the spectacle of the band.

The huge crowd that turned out for Monday's show didn't find cocktail tables or sofas, but they made do. Amidst shouts and fanfare, Sonic Youth returned to Tucson after a long absence and were quite excellent. Thurston Moore told us, "The last time we were in Tucson, we played with Saccharine Trust at a place called the Backdoor. The owner had a gun shoved into the front of his pants when he paid us."

The highlight of the night was the encore's double-helping of Daydream Nation. The band played "The Sprawl" and "'Cross the Breeze" back to back, with gusto. The rest was almost entirely material off their latest, The Eternal, though they also played Sister's "Stereo Sanctity." It was one of the leanest moments of the evening.

The band has changed remarkably little since I last saw them (on their Washing Machine tour almost 15 years ago). Lee Ranaldo's hair is silver now, but he's still the bemused one; Kim is laconic and Thurston flamboyant, alternately striking guitar-god poses and crawling around rubbing his guitar against the speakers. At their best, they're riveting to watch, if only to see how they make the sounds off their records (hint: lots of whammy bar).

Still, they can test one's patience, as almost every song dissembles into orchestral walls of noise that last a long time. Sonic Youth is a jam band, one that substitutes cacophony for jazzy noodling, though they've got range. They can play ferociously tight, and they can play sprawlingly. Their soundscapes can be fetching and delicate (such as the sweeping rendition of "Massage the History" that slowly unwound itself until all that remained was the soft strumming of Kim Gordon's guitar), or monstrous and overwhelming. Despite some excess, they're an awesome live band.

I only caught the tail end of openers Sic Alps, but liked what I heard. They're a band to watch.


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