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The release of a live album always runs the risk of raising someone’s hackles: musical history is littered with examples which were lazy, superfluous or clearly thrown together for a quick buck. Should you feel especially inclined to take shots at Sonic Youth, the release of this literally-titled record lays it on a plate for you. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s divorce just over a year ago brought the band to a halt, for now at least; this release, capturing the four-piece during what’s widely deemed their creative purple patch, is only 67 minutes from 'thousands of hours of live recordings'. The longer Sonic Youth continue in their dormancy, the more the vault-raiding might make them look like a slightly less posthumous Tupac Shakur.
That’s what a wizened cynic would say. More charitably, the group have been revisiting their archive of unissued detritus for a few years now, so this release probably would have happened anyway. Aside from bootlegs, SY aren’t actually that well documented as a live band – there’s a few LPs spanning a 30-year-plus career, but only Smart Bar – Chicago 1985 is in print as I write. It’s notable for being their earliest known gig recorded on anything more professional than a Walkman, although the fellow taping it still managed to miss the first few minutes of ‘Hallowe’en’, the set opener. As luck would have it, a handheld recording also exists, and fills in for the first couple of minutes – it’s very clearly from the middle of the crowd, who are more of a presence than the moody Tom Verlaine-y guitar intro, but throws the listener into the action somewhat.
At the time of this show, Sonic Youth’s second LP Bad Moon Rising had been out a few months. Explicitly designed as a fresh break for the band – Moore and Lee Ranaldo devised guitar tunings which made much of their previous material unplayable – it forms nearly all of the set’s first half. ‘Death Valley ‘69’, perhaps their first crack at making beat-poet capital from pop culture mythology (see later songs like ‘Hey Joni’ and ‘Tunic’), has a massive-sounding guitar intro that, for those present, may well have felt like the room was being sucked into a giant plughole. Gordon, subbing for LP-version guest Lydia Lunch, yowls with some menace.
Listening to Bad Moon Rising and Smart Bar back-to-back reveals cosmetic differences between the songs, partly borne from a personnel change: drummer Bob Bert played on the album but departed before the tour, and his replacement Steve Shelley remains to this day. While Bert feels like a weak link on ‘Brave Men Run (In My Family)’, Shelley elevates it with a near-classic rock fluidity to his playing. All the more remarkable given that he was in batshit Wisconsin hardcore band the Crucifucks until just before this tour. ‘I Love Her All The Time’ feels like a Moore vehicle, much like on record, but has great gobs of anti-rock no wave atmos; ‘Ghost Bitch’ is considerably more abrasive here, Gordon sounding less like a coffee house poet than an untamed punk vocalist – Penelope Houston, say. ‘I’m Insane’ is, for my money, one of the least memorable numbers from SY’s ‘classic’ era, but this one is at least a bit faster than its studio counterpart.
Smart Bar’s other chief point of interest is renditions of then-unissued songs. Instrumental ‘Kat ‘n’ Hat’ has never had a formal release, and doesn’t reveal much new about the group’s methods, although feels vaguely like a prototype for the kind of structures that’d turn up on Daydream Nation. ‘Secret Girl’ is a tinkly, muttery thing which would shortly surface on 1986’s Evol album. ‘Expressway To Yr Skull’, that record’s locked-groove climax and a near-constant presence in their sets since this show, is, er, bolstered by people chatting amongst themselves as it drifts to a close on a mallowy spacerock pillow. The applause is warm as you’d hope, but it does suggest that despite SY’s blossoming rep at the time, holding a crowd’s attention for over an hour wasn’t quite in their grasp yet.
And, save for a couple of hometown-friendly quips about Steve Albini and a throaty rattle through early Youth cut ‘Making The Nature Scene’, that’s ‘em done. There are some neat archive photos with Moore sporting a Die Kreuzen shirt, while Gerard Cosloy, the boss of the band’s record label then (Homestead) as now (Matador), submits a second set of sleevenotes with several somewhat hammered-home jokes about their diva-esque behaviour and use of autocue. Sonic Youth were in fact a relatively small band touring on a low budget, so wouldn’t have acted like this at all! Humour. Smart Bar – Chicago 1985 is not going to change perceptions of either Sonic Youth or live albums: it’s a decent recording strictly for fans. Maybe you’re one.
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