It's impossible to escape the aura of respectable tradition that surrounds Lincoln Center's annual American Songbook series. The very concept evokes an established Broadway-and-beyond form that lies at the heart of U.S. popular music. The majority of the artists presented in Jazz At Lincoln Center's Allen Room hail from the mainstream, whether it be jazz, cabaret, country or pop, but the series has regularly encouraged a slightly subversive element, where representatives from the alternative rock world are invited to tread the boards of NYC's most impressively situated stage. St. Vincent made a relatively early-career appearance in 2010, and tUnE-yArDs was to follow a week after this Thurston Moore
It's amusing to compare the ways in which performers respond to the twinkling vista that lies beyond the expansive behind-stage windows, overlooking the south-west corner of Central Park. Moore wondered why his band couldn't face the other way, backs to the tiered audience, to drink in the uptown scenery. Of course, when the Sonic Youth front man eventually ceased singing and flew off into the abstract guitar zone, his wish was granted, as most of the band members faced back towards the drum kit, layering waves of tone as they gazed across at the starry skyscraper shimmers.
Moore mentioned Sonic Youth in the present tense, wishing fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo a happy birthday. It's not yet clear whether the NYC noiseniks will continue working together following the recent announcement that Moore and his longtime lover, singer/guitarist Kim Gordon are now a sundered item. All the band members are presently operating solo projects, but probably no more than was ever the case. Moore has been recording and touring with his own band since the release of Psychic Hearts (Geffen) in 1995, although activity has increased following 2007's Trees Outside The Academy (Ecstatic Peace). The recent concept behind Moore's solo work has been to move within the semi-acoustic, psychedelic folk realms, post-Neil Young. Acoustic guitars and violin are prominent, but effects pedals are allowed, facilitating a thickening of textures beyond what would usually be expected from such instrumentation. The set drew from all of Moore's solo albums, with an emphasis on the latest, Demolished Thoughts (Matador, 2011).
For much of the time, Moore strummed a 12-string guitar, its sympathetic string-vibrations adding to the jangle, drone and atonal options. Moore joked, as fellow guitarist Keith Wood re-tuned between each song, that he himself never needs to give his guitar such loving attention. Funnily enough, following this comment, Moore elected to undergo a few spots of late-set tuning-up. Wood is also known as Hush Arbors, releasing his own works under that name. Drummer John Moloney was a founder of Sunburned Hand Of The Man, a shape-shifting anarcho-improv cosmic rabble of an ensemble. Moore joked that Moloney shouldn't have been allowed in the building. In fact, Moore is rarely known to orate so copiously during a performance. It turns out that he's a master raconteur, with a sharp wit.
Moore was uncertain whether to continue with his original plan of reading his poems in-between the songs. It was fortunate that he was determined to go ahead, as this illuminated a hitherto underexposed aspect of his talent. Some of the poems boasted more vivid lines than some of his songs. All were read in a vibrant, communicative fashion, rather than the kind of oration where the listener ceases listening to the content, tuning into the vocal drone. Instead, Moore read them like he was visualizing their content for the first time. There was an image-rich abstraction, an obsession with glorious nature, lowdown rutting, drugs, rock 'n' roll and a pervasive sense of place and time. We won't call it nostalgia, for the time when Moore first arrived in the city, we'll deem it a living history, reeking of nowness.
Moore was unusually adept at making his words sound freshly inspired, as if waking from a dream and spouting its contents, or coming 'round after an all night drink 'n' drugs binge. Names were dropped: street names, poet names, punk rock names, from Allen Ginsberg
to Richard Hell, the Bowery to 2nd Avenue (not so wide-ranging there). An effort was made to match the sense of occasion, Moore trussed up with a skinny tie, shirt, jacket and some slightly incongruous, electric-blue sneakers, best described as the well-dressed new wave kid, even though he's now comfortably into his 50s. By the time the encore arrived (the title cut of Psychic Hearts), tie and jacket were ditched, and Moore's shirt was pulled loose into a more familiar flapping mode.