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Thurston Moore melds poetry, noise, and weirdness at the Walker

Thurston Moore

Thurston Moore Vera Marmelo

Thurston Moore's avant-punk ethos is as at home in a Minneapolis art museum as on New York's Lower East Side.

The Walker Art Center presented Sonic Youth’s first Minnesota show at First Avenue in 1982, when the band “first crawled out of New York…touring the country with Swans in a van with no windows," and that initial show funded the rest of the tour.

Moore has maintained a deep affection and attachment to Minneapolis ever since, and over the weekend, he curated two nights of music, poetry, and film at the Walker in honor of his recent 60th birthday. Simply titled Moore at 60, the event offered a cross-section of art forms that have been important and influential to Moore throughout his life, bringing together young voices and established artists.

In a heartfelt introduction, Moore said he was "in awe" of appearing in a town that takes pride in "art and love and activism," adding that Ilhan Omar's election brought "a radical joy to my heart." He then brought out one of the event's biggest names, Wilco's Nels Cline. Moore and Cline’s instrumental guitar duet alternated between minimalist tones and strident squalls, sometimes as urgent as an ambulance screeching through Manhattan, at more reflective moments conjuring the desolate sound of ice crunching underfoot in the dead of a Minnesota winter. Then, with a quick wave and a bow, Cline was off, not to be heard from again that night.

The Canadian sound artist Crys Cole followed with a hushed set of abrasive but oddly comforting experiments. She used her nails, brushes, foil, and other everyday objects to generate a sound something like an out of tune radio broadcast from a time long since passed, with whispered, unintelligible words only adding to the mystery. The performance was a reminder that commonplace items are capable of unique music and idiosyncratic symphonies breathe within found sounds.

St. Paul artist/composer Dameun Strange augmented a stirring sound performance with something that looked like the futuristic saxophone equivalent of a keytar. Strange journeyed to the outer reaches of space and sound, along paths charted by John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and Ornette Coleman, over snippets of speeches and other spoken word recordings. After this revelatory performance, Moore felt compelled to apologize for introducing Strange as solely a poet, saying how moved he was by the sound world he had created.

You got the sense that Moore was watching the evening unfold as attentively as all of us in the audience, drawing inspiration from the distinctive beauty of the performances. After an experimental indie-rock set from Lightning Bolt bassist Brian Gibson, Nøught guitarist James Sedwards, and Moore's longtime collaborator, drummer Steve Shelley (accompanied by a film by Eva Prinz), Thurston just shook his head in stunned appreciation as he came on stage to introduce the next artist. "Nice one, lads," he quipped.

Moore's longtime friend, the poet/activist Anne Waldman, gave an impassioned reading, accompanied by Thurston on guitar as well as Waldman's son, pianist Ambrose Bye, and saxophonists Devin Waldman (her nephew) and Daniel Carter. Waldman gave a shoutout to Coffee House Press and Graywolf Press, saying how nice it was to be in the "literary sanctuary" of Minneapolis. Before she began her work, "Off World," she shared a Bertolt Brecht quote that stood as an unofficial theme for Moore at 60: "In the dark times/Will there also be singing?/Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times." Waldman's long piece lamented how we have killed animals, plants, air, water, words, and each other, while questioning what we’re going to do about it.

"I don't know how the fuck I'm supposed to follow up Anne Waldman," exclaimed the St. Paul poet Danez Smith. "I felt like I just heard an entire century come out of her mouth.” Smith, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry, shared how they’d prepared for the reading: "Smoked a lot of weed with a friend and listened to a fuck ton of Sonic Youth." Smith said the band’s songs conjure three different sensations—"Either you want to fuck, you get really sad, or you want to fight somebody"—and each of the three poems Smith read, including an especially poignant poem about suicide, touched on one of those topics. "I'm very grateful to poems," Smith said. "They give me fellowship instead of prison."

"I'm going to kill this microphone now so it doesn't create any weirdness," Moore announced as he returned to the stage for the night's final performance. The band—featuring Moore and Sedwards on guitar, Shelley on drums, and My Bloody Valentine's Deb Googe on bass—would handle all the weirdness themselves during their 50-minute set. "Alice Moki Jayne" was an avant-garde instrumental suite inspired by musician Alice Coltrane, artist Moki Cherry (mother of Neneh and Eagle-Eye), and spoken-word poet/activist Jayne Cortez.

Moore conducted the changes for the band with nods of his shaggy head, as the tune blossomed from simmering drone into raw punk and grungy noise. When the band fully locked into a groove halfway through the set, it was the best 10- to 15-minute jam session I've heard in years. Free of constraints and expectations, the piece went only where the musicians chased it.

Moore's work hasn’t always made for easy listening over the years, but it has always challenged listeners, pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a song and how musical a tune needs (or doesn't need) to be to still be considered music. And these uncompromising traits were on display throughout Moore at 60. "Keep pushing. Keep pushing. That's our job," Moore said as he left the stage, concluding a night that demonstrated that he clearly isn't done shaking up the world.