The ultimate irony of Sonic Youth's continued existence after nearly 30 years is not that the band dared to grow old, but that such an original and experimental band is the definition of a well-oiled machine, with a touring routine form which it rarely deviates. For more than a decade, that cycle has consisted of releasing a new album every other May or June, and touring all summer while the members' kids are out of school, with a set list that inevitably consists of mostly new songs and a few golden oldies, rarely changing much from night to night. In fact, the only thing even slightly different in the case of this year's The Eternal is that it comes three years after its last album instead of the standard two years, and that Sonic Youth spent much of the time in between playing 1988's Daydream Nation on the festival circuit. That total lack of spontaneity doesn't detract in the slightest from the fact that Sonic Youth is a killer live band, and that its show in Washington last Tuesday, the second of two nights at the 9:30 Club, was fantastic.
The Entrance Band, perhaps the mostly aptly named opening act ever, was a psychedelic power trio that managed to put a fresh twist on a vein of hard rock that seemingly a billion other indie bands are mining these days, with twangy guitar riffs and surprisingly complex, melodic bass lines. The album that it is releasing soon on Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label should be worth a look. A half hour later, the headliners walked onstage, and what followed was perhaps the most danceable Sonic Youth show ever. The mostly uptempo The Eternal may not be the best of the band's latest four albums that have formed something of a late-career renaissance, but its songs translate to a live environment incredibly well, with new bassist Mark Ibold locking into head-nodding grooves with drummer Steve Shelley.
Moore was more tight-lipped with stage banter than usual, only approaching the microphone occasionally to announce songs, and seemingly going out of his way to make the goofiest titles ("Anti-Orgasm," "Thunderclap For Bobby Pyn") sound even sillier. And for perhaps the first time in Sonic Youth's touring history, he's currently strapping on an acoustic guitar every night for "Massage the History," a densely textured slow-burner that went over so well on Tuesday that the audience, oddly enough, began clapping in time to the beat during the song's quiet coda. Even if the band dropped the ball by not playing the mood-setting intro to album highlight "Malibu Gas Station," it collapsed into the night's most satisfying dogpile of noise, always an important distinction with this band.
Amid the Eternal jams, the band peppered in five '80s chestnuts, with nothing from the two decades between. The older selections were all pretty standard, right down to their order in the set, with "Tom Violence" at the top of the show and "Shadow Of A Doubt" and "Death Valley '69" in the encores. Shelley momentarily lost track of the beat in "White Cross," but the song remains a welcome lightening rod of energy during any Sonic Youth show, and it was kind of exciting when "Hey Joni" brought the total of Lee Ranaldo-sung tunes in the set to three. Sure, it would've been great if the band used its stage time to explore its own vast back catalog and unearth some quality deep cuts. But that's just not how it rolls, and it doesn't need to in order to play a kick-ass show anyway.