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Friday, May 18, 2012

Lee Ranaldo gracefully stole the show at the Buckhead Theatre

Lee_Ranaldo_by_Cliff_Krapp.jpg
  • Photo by Cliff Krapp
Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo played the opening set for M. Ward and a well-behaved audience at the Buckhead Theatre on May 17. Ranaldo’s band, which included Alan Licht (guitar), Irwin Menken (bass), and Sonic Youth cohort Steve Shelley (drums), leaned into a set that was mostly made up of songs from Ranaldo's latest solo album, Between the Times & the Tides (Matador Records), but there were a few well-calibrated covers mixed in as well: A bombastic run through the Talking Heads’ “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel” upped the energy all around, and they closed out the set with a spacious rendition of Sonic Youth’s “Genetic” from the "My So-Called Life" soundtrack — or as the more sophisticated fans like to say, it’s a B-side from their 1992 single, “100%.”

The Buckhead Theatre gets called out a lot for sounding kind of wonky, and sure the bass could have been turned up a bit, but the mass of sound on Thursday was balanced, and never stood in the way of an impecable performance. On stage, giving brief anecdotes about each song he was about to play, Ranaldo beamed like a man who’s truly stoked to be right where he is an an artist, and at times, when hitting those wailing notes, his voice bore an uncanny resemblance to that of a young Michael Stipe, circa Lifes Rich Pageant — that's a good thing, but it's merely a happy accident, and the comparisons should stop there. Before tearing into “Genetic,” he explained, “Steve and I used to be in this other band … Well, actually, what am I saying? We’re still in that band, and we wanted to play one of our songs or you; here’s an older one.”

So there’s that …

Over the years, Sonic Youth has soldiered through some pretty harrowing situations: In the sumer of 1999, after playing a gig in Berkeley, CA, a Ryder truck filled with pretty much all of their musical gear was stolen in the middle of the night, and to this day, not much has been recovered. All of those guitars, set to the rich, alternate tunings they'd been developing for years were gone. Not many bands could spring right back from such a blow, but Sonic Youth persisted, and the following album, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, found the group in a rejuvenated state.

The recent marital split between Sonic Youth's highest profile members, singer/guitar player Thurston More and bass player Kim Gordon, has forced Ranaldo, and drummer Steve Shelley, who was there on-loan from the band Disappears, to start anew. Even Thurston Moore put out one of the most vital solo albums of his career following the divorce, Demolished Thoughts. Seeing Ranaldo and Shelley together on stage, reconnecting on some of the greatest songs that Ranalaldo has written outside of Sonic Youth ("Off The Wall," "Shout," "Angles," and "Xtina As I Knew Her), felt like a high point of what, musically speaking, has been a very good year for both of them.

The crowd at the show was divided in the sense that people were there to see either Ranaldo or M. Ward. A visible changing of the guard happened between sets as the more seasoned patrons made their way to the lobby, and the younger faces migrated into the darkened theatre to catch a glimpse of the he of She & Him. Those who endured M. Ward's set were treated to a grand finale during which Ranaldo and his bandmates joined each other on stage to sharpen their knives on a cover of the Beatles’ “The Ballad of John & Yoko” — a curious conclusion to a mismatched night, and a victory lap for Ranaldo, who really did steal the show.

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