SAN FRANCISCO — The Chapel hosted Thurston Moore Group Monday for an arty and unusual experience. Alternative rock icon Thurston Moore led a formidable assemblage of credentialed bohemians, including My Bloody Valentine bassist Deb Googe and Moore’s former Sonic Youth bandmate Steve Shelley on drums. The set comprised three lengthy and unusual compositions, beginning with the hour-long “Alice Moki Jayne,” a tribute to Alice Coltrane.
A slow cymbal crescendo by Shelley opened the set. Deep rumblings of bass guitar and heavily flanged synth seeped in slowly. Moore and second guitarist James Sedwards, each wielding 12-string instruments, held back for a pregnant pause that lasted several minutes. The first chiming guitar notes recalled Midwestern post-rock and the soundtracks to science museum presentations. Moore’s studied and experimental approach to the guitar over nearly four decades fit with his professorial stage presence.
Thurston Moore Group likewise played indie rock for the thinking person. The band cycled through vaguely defined themes like the moon cycles through its phases. The lengthy opening track impressed with its dreamlike progression from movement to movement. Though not categorizable as jazz, the group took a jazz-like approach to sounds appropriated from early post-punk. The result was some kind of machine-driven spiritual nihilism. The first chord change arrived some 11 minutes into the performance.
Not danceable and not quite avant-garde, the music explored a dynamic range devoid of discernible hooks or lyrics. Shrill harmonized feedback traded places with formless drones of deeply resonant, multi-voice sustain. A chug-a-lug passage with squeaking leads segued to a lone melodic section featuring elegant chiming guitar interplay around a cycle of warm root notes. The gradual pastoralism of late-1990s Sonic Youth evoked night meditations from above the turnpike. Using tent stakes and pencils to jam among the strings of their guitars, Moore and Sedwards borrowed from John Cage’s prepared piano works to reference Moore’s noise roots and coax sounds from their instruments.
The accomplished Moore surrounded himself with ranking post-punkers attuned to his aesthetic. John Leidecker, also known as Wobbly, made a tangible contribution of knob-twiddling atmospherics at stage-right. Leidecker captured live sounds and fed them back through the speakers after treating them with undulating effects, enhancing the droning sheets of sound saturating the room. To end one piece, he grabbed what sounded like a planned error from Moore’s guitar and looped it back in to the receding last notes with a slowly deteriorating delay effect.
Sedwards’ serious demeanor and meticulous approach to the guitar reflected his time with post-punk legends This Is Not This Heat. The attentive Googe leaned in to coordinate minute fluctuations of attack with Shelley. Sedwards and Googe took their early cues from the bandleader. Moore’s cosmic nods and mop-dives signaled timed melodic accents over Shelley’s free-form textures. One-time punk rocker Shelley approached the drums with a mixture of fascination and total absorption. Out of the noise mire, multifaceted guitar clangor seethed with startling vibrancy. Moore’s knack for the long, organic build lent the repetitive drones a variable unpredictability that kept them interesting.
The tall 61-year-old Moore joked youthfully with the audience after “Alice Moki Jayne.” He introduced his bandmates and praised their abilities while chuckling about the length of his compositions. He warned the band would not perform an encore, but would play another short song.
In fact, the band stuck around for two more songs. The relatively brief “Having Never Played A Note” was even more hookless than the earlier centerpiece, exploring instead a palette of ringing semi-melodic swells. This was followed by the cinematic and jaunty “8 Spring Street,” a 30-minute exercise from this year’s Spirit Counsel, and the most melodic offering of the evening.
With no opener, this last stop on Thurston Moore Group’s 2019 tour provided a glimpse of an artist still working from the margins of genre and popular music. As harmonious rollicking themes and streams of reverb echoed from the room’s wooden rafters, concertgoers were treated to a personable and close-knit performance from an alternative rock pioneer.