Collected consciousness: Thurston Moore Group reaches higher state at the Imperial

The Thurston Moore Group with Peregrine Falls and Dashes at the Imperial Vancouver 8/5/17

Photo by David Lacroix
Photo by David Lacroix

On Thurston Moore’s latest fifth solo album Rock n Roll Consciousness, the former Sonic Youth singer/guitarist has dialed back the noisy, droning, highly improvisational explorations the art-rock group has become known for. But the spirit of experimentation lives on at his shows like last Monday’s at the Imperial Vancouver, even if only through surrogates.

Opening duo Dashes demanded focus with a deliberate, nuanced performance. Magnetic ringing and protracted, sizzling tension from a set of electronic devices steadily rose in volume as if to match the audience at the back of the room who chatted loudly about The Life Aquatic among other topics. In addition to those patrons, Dashes competed against a host of distractions as the duo serrated the edge of a cymbal with a bow, crinkled pages of a book next to a microphone, and dabbed padded drumsticks against a floor tom: Zippers. A beer cracking. A camera flash. Light laughter. Loud chatter. Lobby commotion, muffled. A blaring police siren outside the venue. Radio distortion. Signal and noise. Destroy Vancouver. Those who got it got it. Dashes were an exercise in deep listening that most of the audience was not ready for.

Second opening duo Peregrine Falls marched onstage with piercing focus. When Gord Grdina shook his hands loose before picking up his guitar, and drummer Kenton Loewen steadied himself in a poised position behind his kit, I knew they were about to hand our asses to us.

Peregrine Falls are often referred to as any jumble of hyphens plus the words “modern,” “jazz,” “post,” “free,” and “punk.” And those tags are warranted: Peregrine Falls continued the experimental music trope of rimming cymbals with various objects, although their apparatus of choice was more traditional: a drumstick. Grdina sliced, grinded, battered, and whipped his fretboard with a bow in a barbaric act of butchery. But he literally whacked out a very coherent, bluesy riff that was warped by the expected twangs of such an approach and his string-bends. Turning his assault to a structure that boasted five vertical prongs, he caused it to dispense electronic sounds straight out of Battles’ math-rock monolith Mirrored. Squiggly electronic waveforms also transmitted through the air as Grdina’s guitar slowly coiled around the sharp, whistling sounds of Loewen’s theremin.

The sheer power that coursed through Peregrine Falls’ performance should not – cannot – be ignored. On the chaotic “Ornette”, named after free jazz innovator Ornette Coleman, Loewen smashed his drums with such intensity that he shook his entire kit and every mic stand onstage. Peregrine Falls closed with a final simultaneous slice of guitar and cymbal-strike that was so hard, the entire cymbal stand toppled onto an audience member in the front row. But she was so possessed during their set, rocking out and making scratching claw gestures, I like to think she might not have even noticed.

After Peregrine Falls’ fearless showing, it was no longer surprising that they’ve even helped indie folk-rock extraordinaire Dan Mangan unleash his heavier proclivities as core members of Dan Mangan + Blacksmith.

It may be difficult to believe, but Thurston Moore and co. played the most conventional set of the night. His unmistakably lanky, 6’4” frame lumbered over to the very edge of stage left where he set up a reading lamp over his notes, blithely greeted the crowd with “Happy Monday,” and thanked everyone for joining the experiment that was the Rock n Roll tour kickoff.

But the margin for error was narrow. Not only was the Thurston Moore Group comprised of alt-rock veterans including Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe, and Nought guitarist James Sedwards, Moore recorded and toured his previous album, 2014’s The Best Day, with the same outfit too. Moore was also at ease. He revealed he’d spent 48 hours in Vancouver prior to the show. He even spent time shopping and picked up a Voids shirt for his daughter. “Don’t tell her!” he said jokingly. The Thurston Moore Group that took the stage at the Imperial were experienced as a unit and relaxed. That is, except for Moore’s positioning at the far side of the stage. “I don’t usually stand this way. I feel like I’m in a cage. It doesn’t feel natural. But I’m dealing with it.”

Rock n Roll Consciousness celebrates the guitar with five tracks that zig-zag along paths defined by Shelley and Googe’s percussion. The album’s title suggests reaching a higher plain of enlightenment, and it was certainly easy to lose oneself as the songs repeatedly coiled and uncoiled and spiked here and there with copious scintillating guitar solos. Consciousness tracks “Aphrodite” and “Smoke of Dreams” even seemed to drip. Such lucid weaves heightened a full-throttle firecracker-like “Cease Fire”. These songs were all streamlined in that they adhered to a resolute overall structure, but the band reinterpreted second encore “Ono Soul”, which appeared on Moore’s 1995 debut solo album Psychic Hearts as a four-minute track, as the longest, noisiest passage of the night.

With Dashes and Peregrine Falls nodding to Sonic Youth’s invigorating experimentalism and abandon, the Thurston Moore Group was free to focus on playing guitar music. Moore, Shelley, Googe, and Sedwards reached the zen they sought and elevated the audience’s consciousness at the same time.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu