Beautiful acoustic guitar after beautiful acoustic guitar came out for the show this past Tuesday – some glossy and blinding, others dark and mysterious. Co-headlined by Steve Gunn and Lee Ranaldo and featuring Meg Baird, not just one artist mentioned the significance of this evening and indeed this tour as a serious resistance against the current state of world politics, specifically our very own Donald Trump, and that they hoped they could convey this feeling of love and healing as they played their way through the various cities on this tour.
The Arts at the Armory, if you haven’t been there, is a really special building that looks, from the outside, to be a fortified mansion – something that a royal family might stay in. But from the inside, it reveals itself to be a true community meeting place that hosts and spreads word about all sorts of events for all ages. I saw mothers clutching babies, yoga mats and medicine balls, people with pink hair and young professionals embracing. There’s a small cafe right inside where you can get things like pumpkin soup and black tea and down the hall is the great concert hall – an enormous ballroom/gynasium/space with tall ceilings, huge stage-side speakers, and a maze of folding chairs.
After oogling all of this for awhile, Meg Baird cooled off these wandering ideas and entered the stage. She played a short set – about 20 minutes of music. To say the least, her songs were quite beautiful. They were these very pure, postured guitar and voice performances set in strange tunings. Her vocals were probably the strongest of any of the singing done that night. She has this sort of wispy ghost in her throat that manifests in an acrobatic, very dramatic style. Her songs remained steady the entire time, at a lower volume and at a mostly clean tone.
Next up was Lee Ranaldo. What is there to say? Lee’s a veteran – a musician in various musical outfits who has had a pivotal role in transforming pop, punk, and noise music. His playing in Sonic Youth revamped what guitar bands could be. There was a certain feeling in his presence, which I heard others comment on too – that this is someone who is an important link from the late punk era into today. Lee mentioned early on in the night that he was going to play lots of new songs off his recently completed record “Electric Trim”, and he hoped that was alright with us. I can only describe Lee’s set as the fusion of classic, driving, perhaps more “accessible” Sonic Youth songwriting ideas with new flavors of country-western, gospel, and above all, rock and roll. The songs Lee is playing now are tight meditations on songwriting and arrangement on an acoustic instrument, and how the limits of that instrument might be shredded and questioned. He tried everything – his strange alternate tunings rung out when he switched guitars between nearly every song. First a black one – then a maple then a brown… He explored drastic changes in tempo, songs with many chords and then songs with only a few. He sang and then let his guitar speak. His songs were also lyrically potent. With the help of Johnathan Letham who apparently collaborated extensively on these words, he discussed nature, new beginnings, limits and challenges of love, American exceptionalism. He went ahead for nearly an hour, until his finale. Here, he took a moment to massage his guitar with a violin bow, let it all feed back, and told us the story of his childhood group of friends and all of the directions they thought they might go, the big plans they had and the reality of how they ended up – in one case an early death. He struck his guitar and thunder came out as he played “The Rising Tide“.
Steve Gunn was last up to play and seemed to be the act that the audience was most excited for, or at least was the most familiar with material wise. They identified the songs quickly and gave lots of applause, banter and energy. If you’ve ever seen Steve in person, you know he is a foreboding presence. Physically, he is a big man and looks even taller on stage. He has deep, dark eye sockets. Steve’s style and focus is on his fingerpicking compositions which are droning, raga-influenced, guitar songs reflecting natural landscapes and introspective thought. In some respects, they are very minimally composed – drawing on repetition, and subtly changing rhythmic patterns and lengthy songs. Steve even joked at one point “How much time do I have? I’ve played 3 songs and it’s been like 45 minutes” He too utilized effects – various delays, overdrives, and perhaps most effectively his wah pedal which added an interesting and dirty psychedelic layer to his otherwise clean set.
I had the great pleasure of catching up with Lee Ranaldo afterwards. We discussed this tour, some of his plans for the near future, as well as some of his feelings about punk and a short reflection on Lou Reed’s legacy. Below is an abridged transcript of our discussion.
Boston Hassle: This is not the first time that you’ve done an acoustic solo tour right?
Lee Ranaldo: I’ve been doing a lot of it for the last like three three and a half four years, so I’ve definitely been doing a bunch of it recently.
BH: Has there been anything kind of surprising or unexpected about doing these kinds of shows?
LR: Well the thing I like about it is it’s like people are sitting and really listening and it’s not like a show where half the crowd is talking or drinking beer and just kind of hanging out. So it’s more like a recital, and that’s kind of cool for acoustic music. Acoustic music is kind of really a drag when you hear people talking. Like, it’s no fun when half the people are talking. So, I like it. We’re playing some standing venues on this tour and we’ll see how it is but… and also tonight, like i’ve been normally standing these days, and playing with a little bit more of a stance. Meg seems so comfortable sitting. When I first started playing acoustic shows I was sitting. Now I’m playing acoustic guitar in my band’s shows as well and so I figured out how to play standing up. So now normally when I play acoustic shows I stand but sometimes it’s cool to sit. This seemed like a mellow room to sit in.
BH: So how did the arrangement with Steve Gunn and Meg Baird come to be?
LR: I don’t know exactly. Last year I was talking up the idea of trying to do a tour with a bunch of like minded people and go out and do like a travelling acoustic tour and this kind of morphed out of that. I mean when I was first thinking about that I was like, you know, you could do a tour like this and maybe this is the first of more that could happen where you could anchor a leg of a tour with a couple of people like me and Steve and then have like either local people in each town or, you know, someone like Meg join for part or someone else joined for part. Or maybe someone like Kurt Vile comes and plays four shows with you or Thurston or you know just whoever. There’s a million people you could do this kind of rotating, sharing thing that I thought would be really cool. So this is so far what we’ve come up with. It’s hard to juggle people’s schedules and figure out how something like that would work. Even this we weren’t sure if we should do like, all right Meg plays three and then I play three and then Steve plays three and then you go around again… or something like that. We weren’t exactly sure if we should structure it normally. Like, Steve and I are gonna flip flop every night. Like tomorrow night Steve will play second and then I’ll play third cause we really wanted to have like this co-headlining tour with the two of us.
BH: Yeah, at first i thought you were playing together actually
LR: Well the idea is that we will work up some stuff together but this is the first day. I only met Meg today. We drove up here, set up and played. There wasn’t a moment we could think of doing something together but that is the idea that we’ll do an encore as a trio.
BH: That’s awesome. Yeah, especially if Kurt and Thurston get added to that or something.
LR: Yeah, Thurston’s gonna play in DC. We’re playing, weirdly enough, in DC, we’re playing on Inauguration Day. Which is crazy… But uhm they booked it without realizing it and so now Thurston’s joined the bill so he’s gonna do a short set. I don’t know if he’ll do electric or acoustic.
BH: Do you have anything special planned for that in ‘honor’ of the event?
LR: There’s nothing that can eclipse what’s going on that day. We’re just gonna do our show and talk about it from the stage a little bit you know… I made these little buttons. I don’t know, time to resist.
BH: Maybe that’s a good segue into something I was saving for later but, uhm, I’m very interested in you particularly as this person who’s been in the punk scene for a long time and seen it develop and change. And I’m wondering if it’s something you can formalize for me, like, what is punk? And is it possibly more relevant now than ever?
LR: I don’t have any idea what it means or what it is at this moment. I mean to me it’s fixed in a time, you know? And what I think of when I think of punk happened between like 1975 and 1982 or 3 or something like that, and everything after that has been kind of like offshoots of it. Like, Sonic Youth was inspired by punk music but we didn’t really make music that sounded like that – except in the fact that a lot of punk music was very adventurous. If you think of like Wire or PIL or if you consider those punk, I mean, they’re super adventurous. And, I mean, we were really inspired by that but ummm…. you know, i mean, it’s just part of a…. I don’t know what you would call it. It’s like part of a…. It’s like part of a stream. That’s what happened then and it made this burst and some of the effects have lingered on and are carried forth in different ways. The aggressive nature of it. The sort of dramatic aspect, you know? Punk was very theatrical. When i first moved to New York and started playing with Glenn Branca he came from the theater and he was all about the theater of rock and roll and the idea that you could, you know, manipulate in a way people’s feelings by the way you presented yourself with it – if it was super aggressive or whatever, super extreme. So punk was a lot of theater in a really good way. It had an idea and it had a content.
BH: Your performance today was also theatrical.
BH: Yeah thank you for the commentary, I think it was really insightful. I was wondering, how did you work with Jonathan Letham, you know, on putting together the words for these new songs?
LR: Well, you know we’ve known eachother for awhile and I’ve been thinking about the idea of getting someone to collaborate with lyrically for a couple records now. Just more in terms of making it step outside of yourself in terms of like ‘oh, you write all the stuff, it’s all coming out of you, you write the music, you write the words’. I asked him and he was up for it and so I started sending him early crude demos of the music. It didn’t sound anything like it sounds now. Just the basic chords and stuff. And then when we started working, we did some really rough vocals. Most of it was just kinda like ‘yabadabadoo!!!’, you know, whatever. And then occasionally a line or two. He’s super prolific and he just went through the whole thing and filled in every line. I wrote it up, you know, so like some lines are just a bunch of letters and then occasionally a line. So a couple of those songs there might have been five real lines of words and the rest were all just melodies and stuff. He filled every line in and then i crossed out like ten of them ‘oh, i don’t like these ones’ and sent it back to him. Or in some cases i had a text and he had a text and they were used in opposition to each other. Like in ‘Thrown Over the Wall’ [a song on the new album] the front and back are him and the middle is me and they work in that way. It was really interesting the way it worked out. It was a fun process to work with him on it. You know, some of the things Jonathan sent me weren’t appropriate but I think we both knew together where we wanted to go with this in a way.
BH: Regarding your new record… okay so Nels Cline is on it Sharon Van Etten is on it… Is there some sort of overriding sound, and maybe it’s the acoustic sound, that you hear coming through?
LR: It’s a lot of electric guitars, a lot of acoustic guitars. There’s a lot of varied passages. There’s a lot of horns and strings. It’s a strange one. There’s a lot of electric guitar for sure, but there’s lots of acoustic mixed in on to almost everything. Every track started with acoustic guitars because that’s what I’m playing these days at home. I really love acoustic guitars – I’m kind of obsessing about them. I’m exploring the medium the way we got so crazy about electric guitars and why we wanted to have so many because they were all different in these cool ways. And right now that’s what acoustics are saying to me – they’re super cool and different. They’re more handmade than electric guitars, you know. Anybody can cut the shape of an electric guitar body but an acoustic guitar doesn’t work like that. They’re crafts, making these things. I’ve been taking these songs right now and, uh, I just did a tour in Europe with a full band with the guy i made the record with, Raul, on electric guitar. Me on acoustic guitar. Drummer with sample pads and a full kit and a bass player. Everybody’s singing – harmonies all over the place. And so I just played these songs with just Alan Licht, my guitar player from The Dust, and we did a trio with the same drummer – this drummer that’s playing with me – this young woman. So I’m trying all these songs in a lot of different ways. Like, I could imagine playing them on electric guitar at some point as well. But how do they work solo? How do they work in a duo or trio or quartet? The quartet has been amazing, really good. I think when the record comes out it’ll be quintet.
BH: Is that ‘The Dust’ [A band that has previously supported Lee Ranaldo]… the quintet?
Well, it’s not really The Dust anymore, it’s new people. I mean, the bass player is quite ill and like struggling – like fighting this illness. He’s gonna win but it’s gonna take a long time. He’s not playing at all and Steve’s been playing with other people so The Dust doesn’t really exist. But Alan will join the band I’ve been using right now and i think it’ll be really cool.
BH: I saw you play, albeit virtually, at The Bells ceremony for Lou Reed, the tribute for him that I guess Laurie organized…
LR: Oh yeah Hal Wilner organized it with Laurie and a couple other people.
BH: Yeah, really beautiful show and I see you’re going to be doing something similar for Leonard Cohen too?
LR: I’m gonna sing at this Leonard Cohen thing a couple days after this tour ends.
BH: What is the significance to you of participating in something like that?
LR: Well with Lou it was like i had been somewhat friendly with him in the last ten years of his life and Laurie a little bit too. We’re kind of neighbors, we live in the same part of Manhattan so like we’d see each other in the movie theater or something like that. But
they asked me to be in that and we played the rock and roll songs of Lou Reed in the afternoon session in the rain and then at night under the beautiful lights they did the love songs, you know. I didn’t stay for the love songs – I watched it on the internet – and it was good but i sort of think we should have had the evening session because the rock and roll songs were more fun…