“I need a drink,” Steve Gunn said as he started into “Way Out Weather” at Rock and Roll Hotel in D.C. on Friday night. After taking a swig he added, “As I’m sure you also probably do.”
Behind Gunn, former guitarist for Kurt Vile, was an upside-down American flag. Donald Trump had been sworn in that afternoon and Gunn and Lee Ranaldo had turned this stop on their tour into a sort of resistance show, with some of the ticket proceeds going toward Planned Parenthood. Among those joining them was Ranaldo’s old Sonic Youth bandmate, Thurston Moore.
Gunn started his set with “Old Strange,” a fingerpicky, Zeppeliny number that clocked in at over 10 minutes, and explained that he wrote it the first time he felt totally blindsided. “There’s a sort of numbness that comes over you and you feel incredibly perplexed and you don’t really know what to do,” he recalled, talking about the past but also the present. “But you also feel really grateful to be around the people that you love.” With that, he thanked everyone for showing up and launched into a set that would set the tone for the night’s strictly acoustic-electric performances.
When Ranaldo took the stage, he told everyone, “This has been such a weird day, and a cap to a few weird months.” A few songs in, he still hadn’t gotten over it: “Have a drink,” he told the crowd. “It’s the first day in hell. If you’ve been looking at anything [in the news] in the last six or eight hours, you know I’m not kidding.”
Ranaldo kicked things off with a song by the appropriate-enough title of “Let’s Start Again,” which got into Leonard Cohen territory at times. (Click here to hear him playing it at Trans-Pecos back in August.) He explained that he’d be playing songs from his forthcoming album, several of which had been written with his friend, writer Jonathan Lethem. “This isn’t the first one we wrote together but it’s maybe the weirdest one we wrote together,” he said as he introduced a “cowboy movie” song, “Uncle Skeleton,” that he said “totally comes out of the pages of his most recent book.” Another song, “Circular,” was about the repetitiveness of daily routines, Ranaldo said.
Conveniently for marchers who were too busy attending a rock show to make signs, Ranaldo announced that he was giving away protest bling at the upstairs merch table. One item was a “Hello My Name Is” sticker on which was written the name of a Bikini Kill song, “Resist Psychic Death.”
There were also buttons reading “2,864,974,” – “votes he lost by, technically,” Ranaldo explained. “It’s just a reminder. Fair is fair. Somebody won.”
“Everybody else lost!” Someone called out from the crowd.
“Everybody lost,” Ranaldo corrected. “Everybody, really.”
Then came another Lethem collaboration, “Throw It Over the Wall,” that Ranaldo said was his “song to resistance, sort of inadvertently.” He added: “I hope we’re looking ahead to human rights, planning rights, gender rights, we’re not looking back 75 years. It’s pretty scary right now to think that we’re back in the Cold War ’50s or something like that.”
Ranaldo capped off his set by inviting Gunn and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo back on stage for a stirring rendition of Velvet Underground’s “Ocean,” presumably a nod toward cleansing and renewal.
Next up was Thurston Moore, who on Saturday was spotted at the Women’s March on Washington with Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye.
Moore started his set with an anti-war/free-love song, “Cease Fire,” and followed up with “Miss Liberty.” Before his next number, he handed out some cassettes of “Chelsea’s Kiss,” a benefit song he had written in support of Chelsea Manning, and acknowledged Obama’s “pretty strong character” for commuting the military leaker’s sentence.
“This song is in honor of the sophistication and articulation that we enjoyed for quite a while as far as representation in this country, because it’s kind of taking a nap right now,” Moore said, launching into “Speak to the Wild.”
Those hoping for a quasi-Sonic Youth reunion (“Youth Against Fascism,” perhaps?) during the encore got what might’ve been the next best thing when Ranaldo, Gunn and Meg Baird got back on stage for a rendition of Neil Young’s “Revolution Blues.” Key lyrics: “I won’t attack you, but I won’t back you,” and “I won’t deceive you, I just don’t believe you.”