A few months ago I was delighted to learn that Sonic Youth would be releasing a recording of their concert at the Smart Bar from August of 1985—which happened to be the first time I ever saw the band play live. That show remains one my most transcendent concertgoing experiences—I vividly remember being transfixed and spending the hours after the show in a state of bliss and awestruck stupor. I had never seen or heard anything like it before.
For some reason I had always thought that Sonic Youth had played Chicago before that show, as part of their 1982 "Savage Blunder" tour with Swans, but according the band's anal performance history the Smart Bar show was actually their first gig in town. The group was touring in support of Bad Moon Rising, which Homestead had released earlier in the year, and it marked one of the band's first performances with drummer Steve Shelley (ex-Crucifucks), who replaced Bob Bert. As Smart Bar, Chicago 1985 (Goofin'), released two weeks ago, makes plain, the band wove its songs together seamlessly, with resonant guitar drones, and, sometimes, noise collages played from a cassette Walkman (both of which allowed Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo to draw from their array of custom-tuned guitars without interruption), into lengthy suites, with one tune blending into the next. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I distinctly recall being spellbound by the contiguous web of sound and blown away by the visceral power.
Sonic Youth live at Smart Bar, 1985
Most of the material was obviously taken from Bad Moon Rising, but they previewed "Expressway to Yr Skull" which turned up on their next album—which Moore jokingly referred to as Anarchy on St. Marks Place—Evol, and there's also the instrumental "Kat 'n' Hat," which they never recorded elsewhere, and some brutal versions of earlier classics like "Kill Yr Idols," "Shaking Hell," and “"Making the Nature Scene." The recording is raw but clear, and according to the liner notes by Aaron Mullan it's the earliest known multitrack live recording of the band, taped on four-track by Rich Menning, former owner of Milwaukee's Atomic Records, using a stereo feed from the mixing board and a live stereo mike. Menning forgot to release the pause button until a few minutes into the show, which opened with "Hallowe'en," so for this release another recording by ubiquitous show taper Aadam Jacobs was momentarily spliced in, starting things off with an almost appropriate blast of lo-fi chaos. The release, available on CD, LP, and digital download, does nothing to diminish my memories—it's a knockout performance that still might rate as the most powerful one I ever caught by Sonic Youth. I saw many amazing shows by them, but that first time burned itself into my brain like no other.