A train filled is crossing the country, bringing art installations and live music to stations in eight cities. The project, organized by artist Doug Aitken, is called Station to Station, and it stopped Tuesday night (Sept. 10) at Chicago’s Union Station. This presented a rare opportunity to see a concert and other artistic happenings inside this building’s towering civic space. Art installations were arranged inside yurts. Short experimental films were projected. The rock band No Age set up drums and guitar amps on the train station floor and played a set of ambient drone music.
The sound of drums and horns suddenly came from another direction — up in a balcony overlooking the main hall. That was the Rich South High School marching band, which proceeded down to the main floor. And then, just as the drummers and cheerleaders were exited, the redheaded sibling duo White Mystery began making a noisy garage-rock racket on the main stage. Three screens were arranged behind the stage, allowing for some striking visuals as the musical acts performed in front of sweeping landscapes and other imagery.
Accompanied by drummer John Moloney, Thurston Moore opened his set with an old Sonic Youth song, “Schizophrenia,” which sounded intriguingly skeletal with just the one guitar. The power went out on Moore’s guitar amps a couple of times during the set, but he managed to play some new and old material.
The Chicago multimedia artist Theaster Gates led his “experimental music ensemble,” the Black Monks of Mississippi, which his website describes as “performers who harmonize the Eastern ideals of melodic restraint with the spirit of gospel in the Black Church and soul of the Blues genre deeply rooted in the American musical tradition.” On this night in the train station, they made some beautiful sounds.
Mavis Staples was a late addition to the schedule for Chicago’s Station to Station event, and her performance was a wonderful way to cap off the night. The set was similar to the one she played four nights earlier at the Hideout Block Party, but she changed up a few songs. One nice addition was her lovely version of the Low song “Holy Ghost.” And she extended “Freedom Highway,” letting the band vamp at the end of the classic civil rights song written by her father, Pops Staples. Recalling Martin Luther King and his words, Mavis Staples seemed almost overcome with emotion for a moment as she declared that she is still here.
On Friday night at the Empty Bottle, Thurston Moore introduced his new group, Chelsea Light Moving, as if both he and his bandmates were completely unknown newcomers to the music scene. Just some new band called Chelsea Light Moving. From Chicago. Or so he said. Of course, the New York-based Chelsea Light Moving is actually a new vehicle for Moore, who’s already famous as a member — apparently, a former member — of Sonic Youth.
The surprising news in 2011 that Sonic Youth was breaking up, or at least taking an extended hiatus, left us fans wondering what the group’s individual members would do on their own. Drummer Steve Shelley spent some time playing with Chicago’s Disappears. Lee Ranaldo released a quite tuneful and enjoyable solo record last year, emphasizing the pop side of Sonic Youth. Kim Gordon made an appearance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago last week (which I missed), reportedly getting rather avant-garde with noisy jams based on Nina Simone songs. On Friday, it was Moore’s turn, and he played songs from his new album with Chelsea Light Moving — which is named for an actual moving company that composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich once operated, back when they need to move furniture to pay the bills.
Moore’s solo records have shown that he’s just as responsible for Sonic Youth’s melodic side as anyone else in the band was, but with Chelsea Light Moving, he’s gravitating more toward the noisier, scrappier end of the spectrum. Moore’s new songs are sometimes bring back memories of what it was like to hear Sonic Youth for the first time, when the chord progressions — or whatever those weird sequences of notes might be properly called — seemed to operate on a logical system distinctly different from most rock music. It was fascinating to watch Moore returning to those roots, even as he tries to reinvent himself. On Friday night, Chelsea Light Moving’s other members (Samara Lubelski, John Moloney and Keith Wood) felt like a backup band for Moore rather than a group where he’s an equal partner in a musical mind-meld. So, yeah, it wasn’t Sonic Youth. But then again, what is?
The show also featured an opening set by Jeremy Lemos, who plays in the Chicago drone band White/Light. This was billed as a solo set, but he was joined onstage by the other half of White/Light, Matt Clark, as well as Mark Solotroff (of the bands Bloodyminded and Anatomy of Habit), for a set of abstract hums and bleeps.
The second band of the evening was Cave, the Chicago krautrockers, who dug into their repetitive riffs with intensity.
In case you missed it … Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth played two shows this past weekend in a little Logan Square club called The Burlington. Despite Moore’s fame, the gigs seemed to be a bit under the radar. They were part of the four-day Neon Marshmallow, a diverse and sometimes daring music festival event that was held in the Empty Bottle and Viaduct Theatre in prior years. I wish I could’ve attended more of the festival this year, but other things on my schedule got in the way. But I did manage to catch Moore’s performance on Sunday night — which was especially cool because it featured Moore collaborating and improvising with Frank Rosaly, one of Chicago’s most inventive drummers.
Rosaly made skittering, clattering noises with his kit — occasionally holding cymbals and other percussion pieces instead of drumsticks — creating rhythms that skipped around in unexpected patterns. Moore was using old-school equipment — just one electric guitar, a few pedals, an amp and a couple of bars or tools to assault his strings. Together, they painted an abstract sonic landscape. Near the end, Moore laconically leaned back against his amp, taking his hands off his guitar and letting the feedback ebb and flow. Across the stage, Rosaly was the manic opposite of Moore’s frozen figure, attacking his drums with a rapidity that approached the impossibly fast hammering of woodpeckers. And then Moore abruptly lunged to the middle of the stage and stomped on a guitar pedal just as Rosaly shut himself off and brought the noise to a climactic halt.