When art-damaged demigods Sonic Youth tossed in the towel in 2011, I admitted to total devastation. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s disintegrating marriage and subsequent divorce was more upsetting for me than my own parents’, I shit you not. When I got word that the other half of SY planned to breeze through the Biltmore in early December, I was going to be there with the proverbial bells on. The way I see it, Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley are the George and Ringo of NYC’s much missed legendary post-punk art rock innovators and everything it entails. Ranaldo has never been lackadaisical or one to rest on his laurels, having busied himself with solo projects, visual arts, multimedia collaborations, and seamless musical productions going back decades. His latest project, dubbed Lee Ranaldo & The Dust, is packed with promise, as their dreamy debut,Last Night on Earth, far-reaching and shimmering, embellished with his signature solos, demonstrates.
As the smoke machines coughed and wheezed, the excited crowd pushed towards the stage in anticipation. The audience was a joyous cross-section of fans, but most seemed to have brought the grunged-out long hair and lumberjack flannel dress code memo—as well as the air-guitar guidelines playbook, ensuring as much wistful awesome as possible would be achieved.
Looking perhaps a little road-weary, but eyes nonetheless beaming and bright, the silvery salt-and-pepper haired Ranaldo arose from the alt-rock ether, an axeman for the ages, leading his bang-up band through a wealth of deeply textured and imaginative numbers. Ranaldo’s first few songs, including “Waiting on a Dream,” “Ambulancer,” and “Lecce Leaving” were delicate and hypnotic, appealing to his mellower and more melodious side. But when he played “Xtina as I Knew Her,” from last years purgative and pounding Between the Times and the Tides, Ranaldo let it rip. Cathartic and crunchy guitar skyrocketed as he played the strings with a violin bow (a standard of his, that he’d revisit many more times throughout the night), also employing an array of delay and effects pedals with speed and exactness, like a black magician conjuring mad shadows.
At times echoing ominously but always with cordial and generous banter, Ranaldo played with nimble proficiency, while positively confirming his guitar god status. Shredding and soloing, all with the refinement of a virtuoso, while Shelley, not to be outdone, kept time swiftly, adding to the spacey jams when called upon, gathering speed like a shooting star.
Ranaldo closed out the night with a landslide of reverb and abrasive, monstrous distortion, as you’d expect. His three-song encore included “Late Descent,” as well as a conquering cover of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues.” Then, if that wasn’t enough love for his acolytes, Ranaldo lolled at the the merch table, posing for photos, signing autographs, and laughing it up well past the early show curfew—totally the sorta thing George would have done.