By Mark Guarino
The so-called alternative nation of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s finally caught up with the baby boomers. Even though the Lollapalooza generation sneered at Roger Daltrey singing “hope I die before I get old” while dying his hair, Sonic Youth is stuck having to perform their hit anthem “Teen Age Riot” as middle age parents who are in their early fifties.
The occasion was the second annual Pitchfork Music Festival that opened Friday in Union Park, located near the United Center in the city’s far West Loop neighborhood. The festival has quickly become the summer’s most affordable and quirkiest music weekend, with a roster of three day’s worth of music ranging from electro-pop to alternative hip-hop to veteran rock icons.
Opening day of the three-day festival was designed as a special event. Patterned after All Tomorrow’s Parties, the U.K. festival known for requiring artists to reproduce a seminal album from their back catalog in its entirety, Pitchfork organizers requested the same of three different artists: the experimental rock band Slint, Wu-Tang Clan member the GZA and New York City alt-rock pioneers Sonic Youth.
For Sonic Youth, that meant recreating their 1988 double-album “Daydream Nation” (Geffen), regarded as a milestone of its time. One reason for turning back time is practical — a deluxe CD reissue of “Daydream Nation” was released in June and its vinyl counterpart is out this month. But even though nostalgia was the primary driver for Friday’s kick-off, it was surprising how much the album sounded fresh, not just to the people playing it, but the audience, most of whom were still in diapers when it first hit stores. For a generation that seems to value downloadable singles rather than full albums, their enthusiastic reception of having to listen to a full set of music performed live for 75-minutes was a revelation.
The other revelation was of Sonic Youth as the original alt-rock jam band. What made “Daydream Nation” different in 1988 were its long, complex and often spacey instrumental sections. Pairing Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore, the guitars linked into rhythm, one slightly echoing the other as they wound up tightly before cathartically releasing into noise or an energetic pop chorus.
On Friday, songs like “Hey Joni” were suspended with drama until their breaking point. The music kept swinging back and forth from gentle plateaus — with the guitarists gently playing bobbing rhythm — to messy and loud breakouts. Performed live, it was exhilarating to keep up although, like most potential epics, some editing could have tightened the experience. A song like “Rain King” was stuck in pure rhythm and felt more like a cold exercise.
Ironic detachment was a significant factor of Sonic Youth’s era. For this band it comes in the guise of Gordon, not a particularly good singer, but a shouter whose girlish exaltations teased. On the album’s prog-rock finale — three segments labeled “Trilogy” — she twirled in place at length for music that, 19 years later, is still worth celebrating.
For coverage of Pitchfork’s remaining two days, see the Monday and Tuesday print editions of the Daily Herald.