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Concert review: Lee Ranaldo & The Dust and Elsa @Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, ON | Oct. 11, 2013

There’s plenty of noise, but Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley’s new band doesn’t play Sonic Youth
Tom Beedham

Lee Ranaldo takes a cello bow to one of his infamously hot-rodded Fender

Lee Ranaldo takes a cello bow to one of his infamously hot-rodded Fender “Jazzblaster” Jazzmasters during one of his mid-song noise jams with The Dust at Horseshoe Tavern on Oct. 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham

Blame it all on the Thanksgiving gravy spilled this long weekend, but for a pair of acts sharing the Horseshoe’s stage Oct. 11 as a platform for the albums they’re each in the throes of sending off as their first official releases, it was easy to see Elsa and Lee Ranaldo & The Dust were pretty appreciative of the situations that brought them there.

Concert photos: Lee Ranaldo & The Dust and Elsa at Horseshoe Tavern

Sure to get some attention on “Local Bands to Watch” lists yet to come, it’s little surprise Elsa was called on by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo to deliver some unbuttoned dreamgaze at the start of his show. And Elsa couldn’t have been more grateful for the opening set blessing imparted on them for the night; they made it known – both literally and figuratively – with some earnest stage thanks and a set fit for gifting.

Having evolved and quadrupled in size since songwriter and guitarist Jonathan Rogers brought the project into realization as a bedroom demo some time ago, Elsa now features second guitarist Matthew Goldman, bassist Jesse Mirsky, and drummer Angie Wong.

The band seized the exposure of their supporting slot and used the event to soft release their premiere 12” single, I Do (officially due Oct. 22 via Fucked Up guitarist Mike Haliechuck’s 12” singles boutique One Big Silence), but their set went well beyond the four-track listing on that EP, hinting it shoudn’t be long until Toronto hears a proper album from these folks.

If that follows, so might a sound that is markedly different from their EP preference.

While Jesse Mirsky’s bass has a subtle presence on most of I Do’s mix, emerging only at times from the lapping wash of hazy guitars provided by Rogers and Goldman – Rogers strums chords while singing, and Goldman demonstrates a strong right hand by plucking through whirling arpeggios on his Rickenbacker – at the Horseshoe, Mirsky was distinct and pervasive, his propulsive finger picking often evocative of a laid-back Peter Hook with a thing for disseminating Quaaludes.

They closed their set with a smoggy cover of lo-fi indie pioneers Guided By Voices track “Game of Pricks.”

Lee Ranaldo & The Dust didn’t forgo paying respects to their influences, either, cranking out covers of The Modern Lovers’s “She Cracked” and Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues” throughout the night.

The bulk of their hour-and-a-half-long set was otherwise a pretty even jumble of cuts from The Dust’s premiere, Oct. 8-released Last Night On Earth and Ranaldo’s last solo release, Between the Times and the Tides (full setlist below). That shouldn’t have come as a surprise, however. Although Ranaldo’s new group features bandmates from Sonic Youth and Text of Light – Steve Shelley on drums and Alan Licht on guitar, respectively – as well as jazz bassist Tim Lüntzel (Bright Eyes), The Dust is largely personelled by musicians that put in studio time on his last solo release, which distances itself from the guitarist’s previous noise-rock exploits with more conventional song-led structures in its sights.

Even when The Dust returned for an encore and a fan shouted a request for “Mote,” a Ranaldo-led cut from his and Shelley’s more avant-garde pinioned band’s 1990 album Goo, Ranaldo chuckled and dismissed it, citing its absence from the setlist for the night. But songs relying on such perpetual barbed clangour for escort don’t really come up in the guitarist’s new work, and as a result don’t find easy segues in the new material; it is a band more vocal about influences found in the contemplative folk rock ventures of songwriters like Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young (hence the covers). Besides, Ranaldo doesn’t need validation for work that’s already proven successful.

Still, The Dust sated Sonic Youth-bred noise fans’ thirsts for Ranaldo-brand pandemonium when it wandered into some spontaneous and resourceful noise jams during the heavier sections of a few of the new songs; Ranaldo took a bow to his guitars during “Xtina” and “Hammer Blows,” and even smashed a jumble of Tibetan bells against his axe during “Lecce, Leaving”; Licht spent the night reigning over the eleven pedals he had surrounding his space on the right side of the stage and even tested the stage’s light rigging and bulkhead as neck slide devices during “Key/Hole.”

Fans even glimpsed some classic Sonic Youth nostalgia onstage. In addition to a more recently acquired (remarkably pristine – for Ranaldo) purple Deimel Firestar (not to be confused with the green 12-string Deimel seen on the cover of the Corporate Ghost DVD) and Jarell JZH-1x, the guitarist’s artillery included the signature Jazzmaster model Fender consulted Ranaldo on and manufactured in his name, the Saul Koll custom-built cherry F-Hole Jazzblaster Ranaldo’s used since tours in 2000, the Telecaster Deluxe that Kurt Cobain once borrowed (even though he played right-handed) to perform a cover of Fang’s “The Money Will Roll Right In” live with Mudhoney (!), and a motley herd of “Jazzblaster” hot-rodded Jazzmasters – almost all slapped with labels for unconventional tunings – among the ranks.

While the press concerned with Ranaldo and the rest of his Sonic Youth bandmates’ various solo endeavours continues to flog the jilted relationship of former partners Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore and the resulting hiatus of their band, the new groups have so far proven to mean cities are seeing its  members more often and, for longer combined periods of time. And with each of the members putting on different hats to explore and expand their separate careers, it’s worth noting that the time off to pursue other interests could result in stronger interests in Sonic Youth – so we can’t really complain, can we?

Sure, we’ll continue longing for a day when all members grace the same stage at the same time again, but until then, at the risk of sounding groaningly topical following Canadian Thanksgiving, we’re getting plenty to be happy about.

Ranaldo, at least, seemed content simply to air his satisfaction with hitting the Horseshoe’s long-lived stage at the end of his show.

“It’s nice to finally play this place.”

It was nice to have you, Lee.

Lee Ranaldo & The Dust setlist
“Tomorrow Never Comes”
“Ambulancer”
“Off The Wall”
“Angles”
“Last Night On Earth”
“Xtina”
“Key/Hole”
“Hammer Blows”
“Home Chds”
“The Rising Tide”
“Revolution Blues” (Neil Young)
“Lecce, Leaving”
Encore
“She Cracked” (The Modern Lovers)
“Fire Island (Phases)”
“Waiting On A Dream”

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Concert photos: Lee Ranaldo & The Dust w/ Elsa @Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, ON – Oct. 11, 2013

Lee Ranaldo at Horseshoe Tavern during one of the quieter parts of his set, which also saw him bow his guitar and smash it with Tibetan bells – also pictured in the photo gallery. Photos: Tom Beedham

Lee Ranaldo at Horseshoe Tavern during one of the quieter parts of his set, which also saw him bow his guitar and smash it with Tibetan bells – also pictured in the photo gallery below. Photos: Tom Beedham

While Lee Ranaldo & The Dust (featuring Ranaldo’s previous Sonic Youth and Text of Light bandmates Steve Shelley and Alan Licht, respectively, as well as Tim Lüntzel) released their first official album as a band, Last Night On Earth, on Oct. 11 via Matador, local dream pop outfit Elsa used the opportunity to soft release their debut One Big Silence 12″ single, I Do (FULL CONCERT REVIEW AND LEE RANALDO & THE DUST SETLIST HERE). Below are links to images from the gig, which saw Ranaldo abuse his guitars in the ways Sonic Youth fans know him best for. Do the click thing.

Lee Ranaldo & The Dust

Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_1 Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Alan Licht_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_6 Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_7 Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_5 Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_4 Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_3 Lee Ranaldo & The Dust_Horseshoe Tavern_Tom Beedham_2

Elsa
Elsa opening for Lee Ranaldo & The Dust at Horseshoe Tavern - October 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham Elsa's Matthew Goldman (left) and Jesse Mirsky (right) at Horseshoe Tavern - October 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham Elsa's Matthew Goldman at Horseshoe Tavern - October 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham Elsa's Jonathan Rogers (left), Angie Wong (back), and Matthew Goldman (right) at Horseshoe Tavern - October 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham Elsa's Jonathan Rogers at Horseshoe Tavern - October 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham Elsa's Jesse Mirsky at Horseshoe Tavern - October 11, 2013. Photo: Tom Beedham

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Album Review: Chelsea Light Moving–’Chelsea Light Moving’

Chelsea Light Moving’s self-titled LP (Matador)

“Smash the control images. Smash the control machine.” When William S. Burroughs penned those words in his 1961-published The Soft Machine, they defined more than their immediate context; smashing control was the purpose for the cut-up/fold-in format of The Soft Machine and the trilogy it belonged to, but it was also the general focus of Burroughs’s life’s work. Working from that premise, we can begin to understand what (former?) Sonic Youth guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore meant when he presented his new band, Chelsea Light Moving, to the world and toted it as “Burroughs rock.”

To be sure, passing off your music as something that can be directly aligned with a highly esteemed thinker’s raison d’être involves no modest claim making, especially when the legend in question now resides beyond the grave and has no further say in the matter. But any question regarding Thurston Moore’s tact can probably be put to bed in this case; Chelsea Light Moving’s eponymous LP comes over 20 years after its songwriter earned Burroughs’s personal blessing when Sonic Youth’s music was featured on Burroughs’s own readings vs. music album Dead City Radio, and following the author’s death in 1997, Sonic Youth’s association with Burroughs was given further cultural approval when it was featured predominately throughout the 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.

Sonic Youth never explicitly identified itself as “Burroughs rock,” though it was regarded that way anyway. But is Chelsea Light Moving a rightful heir to that throne solely for the virtue of Moore’s back catalogue?

The answer is an unmistakable No. And Burroughs wouldn’t approve of Moore doing something that was markedly faithful to the Sonic Youth formula, anyway. After all, he did say, “to become an individual again, [an individual must] decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground for himself as possible.” He associated true individuality with engaging in a Nietzschean sort of constant becoming.

In accordance with Burroughs’s penchant for personal overcoming, Chelsea Light Moving is no vanity project. Moore has done solo work before, but Chelsea Light Moving marks his first time at the helm of an actual band. That’s in stark contrast to how, with Sonic Youth, Moore shared creative responsibilities mostly with fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon (Moore’s wife until their divorce in 2011).

Style and content-wise, the album also offers a history that Burroughs himself could have provided, and they do it in a way that’s never been done before; Chelsea Light offers an unambiguous homage to its genre-sake with “Burroughs” (and Beat poetry more generally on “Mohawk,” which – with a late reference to Darby Crash – also serves as a premature segue for the group’s cover of the 1979 Germs track “Communist Eyes”); “Frank O’Hara Hit,” a track Moore described on the Matador blog as “a meditation on [Julys] through history,” is about the month that included the 1966 death of New York City poet Frank O’Hara; and along with its Germs cover, “Lip” serves as a tribute to hardcore punk from the ’80s, while the chugging “Alighted” digs into sludge elements born in the same decade.

Burroughs wanted to smash all notions of control, and with Chelsea Light Moving, Moore makes good business of the same pursuit. But with this being said, there’s an important way in which Sonic Youth excelled at a Burroughsian enterprise that Chelsea Light Moving ignores.

Some might find it unfair to hold Moore’s new band up against an older act that had time to grow and strengthen as an organism, but Moore and fellow Chelsea Light Moving members Samara Lubelski, John Moloney, and Keith Wood have been at the music game long enough, and the overlapping contexts and intentions of the two groups make comparison here relevant.

One of the greatest appeals of Sonic Youth was the group’s tendency to share the responsibility of songwriting/directing among its members and bounce off of each other’s ideas in a democratic fashion – best discernable in the noise rock meltdowns that made their way into so many Sonic Youth recordings. With Moore providing the sole vocals and his guitar weighing heavy in the mix, Chelsea Light Moving seems to rely on an authority that was less discernable in Sonic Youth’s more recognizably democratic output, and as a result – at least in a structural sense – seems at least marginally less concerned with smashing control than his former band.

But that shouldn’t count too heavily against Moore’s new group. Chelsea Light Moving is not without the collective tantrums of disparate noise that Burroughs must have loved about Sonic Youth, and when they provide those fits, they’re at their best.

Maybe through holding back on the anarchic noise meditations, Moore intended for his audiences to get hungry. If so, it worked.

4/5

 

(originally published by The Ontarion on March 20, 2013)