The Union Sound Hall was transformed into a mad scientist laboratory mixing up a concoction of atonal sounds and experimental music, on the evening of January 27, 2014. That’s when Lee Ranaldo, former guitarist of Sonic Youth, was in town playing with local avant garde musicians Greg Hanec, Rob Menard, Kelly Castle, and Steve Pennicook.
Sonic Youth was very popular in the New York underground experimental scene in the early eighties. Known for their feed-back-fueled left-field improvisations and alternative tunings (partly due to the fact that they started out playing very cheap guitars), Sonic Youth were influenced by such bands as Patti Smith, Wire, Public Image Limited, The Stooges, Minor Threat, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Glenn Branca, Brigitte Fontaine and The Fall.
They did covers of the Kinks (Victoria) and The Carpenters (Superstar on tribute album ‘If I Were a Carpenter’).
Animated on ‘The Simpson’s’ for the Homerpalooza episode in 1996, it was the first time outside musicians performed the theme song for the end credits.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked Ranaldo #33 on it’s greatest guitarists of all-time list in 2004. In 2005, their 1988 double album, Daydream Nation, was one of fifty albums added to the National Recording Registry.
The band disbanded after 30 years together due to the breakup of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, when Lee announced on Nov. 28, 2011 that Sonic Youth “are ending for a while.”
Since Sonic Youth, Lee has kept busy as a musician, poet and artist (sometimes collaborating with his wife). His latest project is with the band The Dust with Steve Shelley (SY drummer 1985-2011), Alan Licht, and Tim Luntzel. They released an album, ‘Last Night on Earth’ last year. Lee, his wife and children make frequent visits to Winnipeg to visit her family here.
With some beautiful images (courtesy of Lee’s wife, former Winnipegger, experimental artist Leah Singer) on a large video screen, Lee entered the packed room clutching his feeding back distorted guitar and created a semicircle at the front of the audience around the playing area. He then proceeded to suspend the guitar from a rope hanging from the ceiling. He started banging on the guitar with a drum stick and playing it with a violin bow. At this point he started spinning it around in a 12 foot radius just inches away from the faces of eager fans.
Things got a little more strange when Greg Hanec entered the room scraping pot lids across the floor. Lee would hit the guitar as it swung around and elicit wailing sounds out of it. Then Kelly and Steve started in on their percussion and cymbals on the left side of the room.
On the right side of the room, Rob Menard, hidden amidst the crowd, joined the melee on guitar, making sounds reminiscent of his former experimental band Absent Sound. Once in a while a large bass drum near Rob would boom.
As the guitar kept swinging, Lee and Greg kept themselves busy making sounds with an assortment of cans, bells and other items. Some of the audience members, seated on the floor in the front joined in by keeping time banging their bottles and glasses on the floor.
With his collection of foot pedals and f/x units in the centre of the stage area, Lee would grab the guitar once in a while off the rope and scrape the end of the neck across the floor like it was a divining rod searching for the holy note. Then, that large bass drum boomed again, like a big heartbeat.
Lee and Greg had a violin bow duel at one point with Lee bowing his guitar and Greg bowing a pot lid. Once in a while some bizarre pre-recorded sounds were played through the speakers. Throughout the set there was a sense of chaos, but controlled chaos nonetheless. It was almost like some sort of strange ritual was happening. In fact at one point, one audience member jumped in and finished smashing a can on the floor that Greg had started thrashing. Then he put the can crown on his head while Greg anointed him. It was fifty-five minutes of blissful noise.
The evening started off with Jim Jarmusch (filmmaker) and Phil Kline (both in town as part of the WSO’s New Music Festival where they performed their piece ‘Tesla in New York’ with the Winnipeg Symphony orchestra). The duo created a soundscape soundtrack to some old Thomas Edison black and white films. Two guitars feeding back into each other in stereo with Phil on the left and Jim on the right. What a sight, a truly sonic night!
All photos by Doug Kretchmer