Early in Sonic Youth's set, Kim Gordon, dressed in bronze lamÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© that looked like it had been dragged through a dirty New York alley, pushed her bass guitar around on the ground and then stood in front of a pile of black amps on stage. She appeared to be listening to them, those black boxes that regulate the noise, for the kind of mystic instructions that would make the writers of "Lost" proud.
For romantics of the rock 'n' roll squall, the Hollywood Bowl served up an evening of pummel and grace Thursday night. Each performance – No Age's smart brutality, Sonic Youth's artful bashing, Pavement's elegant shambles – danced around noise. For No Age, who opened the show, that mission was explicit; for Pavement, the recently reunited headliner, less so. Sonic Youth, helmed by Gordon and Thurston Moore, the art-world godparents of feedback-laden wreckage, made a fine connective tissue.
No Age, the local duo of Randy Randall and Dean Spunt (and joined on stage by William Kai Stangeland-Menchaca on samples), wins distinction for perhaps being the loudest band to ever perform at the Bowl. At times, it was thrilling: For their closing number, drummer/vocalist Spunt did little more than issue a series of club-fisted lashes while the shell around the Bowl's stage pulsed with light. At other times, some of No Age's nuances were lost in the rubble. Spunt's vocals, in particular, couldn't find much expression or dynamic interplay.
Sonic Youth, on the other hand, has been at the post-punk game much longer and is more adept at countering the harder elements with guttural beauty. The lineage between No Age and Sonic Youth is clear, if only in stage presence; anyone could believe Randall is Moore, just some 25 years younger: same style of slouchy flannel, same curtain of hair that only sometimes parted for an expression of stupefied wonder on Randall or a Cheshire Cat's grin on Moore.
The elder band's set relied heavily on its classic '80s catalog, particularly the album "Daydream Nation" from 1988, with its fusion of high-art experimentation and trashy cool. On "'Cross the Breeze," Gordon's voice floated over the shredded dissonance. Refreshingly, age isn't a detractor for this designer-musician-artist; if anything, being over 50 only reinforces the sense that Gordon's seen a lot of things – and nothing has scared her. For "Shadow of a Doubt," Gordon sang her spooky love song in a hypnotizing scream-whisper.
One of the highlights of the night was Sonic Youth's rendition of "Death Valley '69," inspired by the Manson murders. Together, Moore, Gordon and Lee Ranaldo intoned the psycho lyrics – digging into the song's dismembered chant of "now, now, now!"
Toward the end of its set, Sonic Youth encouraged the audience to go to The Smell, the downtown bastion of no wave, noise, punk and other scattershot genres, as well as spiritual home to No Age. All three of the bands also thanked or dedicated songs to each other, in another gesture of tribal solidarity.
Pavement's been on its reunion victory lap for most of the year now. Its California shows in April, particularly at the Fox Theater Pomona, showed the band members in strong form, ready to genuinely embrace their own disheveled but highly touted status as indie rock antiheroes.
At the Hollywood Bowl, their confidence and chemistry were palpable. One of the great jaded sourpusses of rock, Malkmus broke several smiles and cracked jokes, which was like seeing the grump in the back of the class finally light up. He showed off his California knowledge, referencing Silver Lake and Irvine, as well as Houston Texans backup quarterback Matt Leinart, who played for USC.
For Pavement, the noise came in either bass-heavy sheets or jazz-inspired squiggles. "Summer Babe" was dosed in reverb, the vocals pleasurably shaky. Its debut, "Slanted and Enchanted," got ample time but Pavement spent the better part tending to 1994's "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain."
"Cut Your Hair," the closest thing the band had to a hit, was played first -- joyfully ransacked and then discarded. "Stereo," from "Brighten the Corners," was a dazzling, hot messy squirm. Malkmus' vocals brilliantly tumbled out, the indie guy's version of a rapper's flow.
If No Age wins distinction for being the noisiest band, then Pavement gets an award for the most inglorious usage of the Bowl's catwalk. The crazy drunk uncle of the band, Bob Nastanovich, ambled down the walkway during "Unfair," dropping the song's Golden State geography nods to the Shasta gulch and the Grapevine to L.A. It was California as Pavement knows how to do it – ridiculous but a little profound.