In 1985, indie rock was still very much a wild, somewhat dangerous underground subculture that lived in the shadows of corporate radio rock and the multi-platinum hair metal acts that dominated mainstream American airwaves and Billboard charts. Along with gruff experimentalists like the Swans, guitar noodling slackers Dinosaur Jr., acid casualties the Butthole Surfers, and many many others, Sonic Youth were one of the more important creative forces in the early days of indie obscurity, making their way across the college campuses and small-capacity rock clubs of both the U.S. and Europe, bending traditional guitar-based rock through a prism of film school dropout sensibilities and New York's savage no wave aesthetic. Smart Bar: Chicago 1985 captures the band at a particularly explosive date on a tour supporting its second proper album, Bad Moon Rising. Drummer Bob Bert had left the band after the recording of the album, off to contribute trash-can percussion to Pussy Galore and replaced by an incredibly boyish Steve Shelley, formerly of goofy speed punkers the Crucifucks and playing on his first tour with the band here. The set list sticks pretty closely to the eerie songs of Bad Moon Rising, but the performance trades in some of the album's plodding horror-movie dread for a more visceral, explosive energy. Sprawling stretches of guitar feedback, walkman tape blurts of Madonna songs, and group percussion jams bridge the songs, with Shelley's interpretations of the drum parts going from simply propulsive to an interplanetary urgency. The band sounds locked into a collective meditation for much of the set, stringing together the long and discordant segments of songs into a mostly uninterrupted hour and change of sound. Along with the Bad Moon Rising material and a few selections of the Glenn Branca-influenced songs from the EPs that came before, previously unreleased instrumental track "Kat 'n' Hat" makes an appearance here, as do then-new songs "Secret Girl" and "Expressway to Yr Skull," which wouldn't appear in recorded form until 1986's troubled dream EVOL. The recording here comes from a mix of multi-tracked cassette and fan-taped sources, resulting in some occasional clumsy panning or distortion, but high fidelity couldn't quite capture the blistering energy of this phase of the band. Without besting the album versions, almost every song here offers a more vivid, more extreme counterpoint to its better-known studio side. Before the kingdom of Nirvana that SY helped pave the way for came and went, it was still the Wild West for indie bands with no budgets and minimal exposure. Smart Bar is a sepia-toned snapshot of the excitement and unhinged freedom Sonic Youth operated in during those times. Unpolished, tormented, hungry, and constantly threatening to crumble into godless noise, this is the band at its white-hot peak -- a raw, dangerous, and unknown brilliance that the group would never fully return to.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas