It’s gauche to point out that a band with the word “youth” in its name is now composed of graying fiftysomethings, but when the once insurrectionary noise-artists Sonic Youth were forced to cancel last fall’s tour due to a tennis injury — shortly after exiting their longtime contract with Geffen — speculation that the group was going gentle into the night felt unavoidable. Saturday night saw the band go to great lengths to correct that impression, imbuing its make-up show with the kind of insouciant (and dare one say, youthful) energy rarely seen in a 30-year-old act.
It was hard not to interpret the New Yorkers’ Wiltern Theater setlist as a statement of intent: The band devoted a full hour of its 95-minute show to songs from 2009 indie release “The Eternal,” and entirely ignored all material from its two decades on a major label. Even more tellingly, Sonic Youth dipped into its back catalogue only once during the main set. The song? 1988’s “Hey Joni,” a caustic critique of Woodstock-generation musical complacency.
Of the new material, the blues-informed “Calming the Snake” was particularly exhilarating, with guitarist Thurston Moore whipping his long, lanky arms like a scarecrow Pete Townshend while wife Kim Gordon pushed her voice well beyond its breaking point. No female rock singer this side of Nico has wrung more sexual mileage out of throaty atonality, and Gordon was in particularly smoldering form during her turns on the mic. Although his contributions are often overshadowed by Gordon and Moore’s dynamics, guitarist-singer Lee Ranaldo provided a meditative counterpoint to their sturm und drang during “What We Know.”
All the same, it wasn’t until the two extended encores that the band fully bared its fangs, first for a “Daydream Nation” mini-suite, and then for a stunning run through vintage tunes “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Death Valley ’69” — the former an oceanic lullaby, the latter a denture-rattling assault that sent the multi-generational audience home with a reminder of just how much destructive power the band can still command.
Sonic Youth plays New York on Jan. 22.