Sunday, February 17, 2013

Live Review: Yo La Tengo, The 9:30 Club (2/15/13)

Photo Courtesy of Ron Mitchell
Let’s start with a little disclaimer: the first time I saw Yo La Tengo, they sort of blew my mind. It was about a year ago at a small festival in Richmond, Va. It had been rainy all day, and turn-out was minimal. About half a dozen pretty-good sets and five hours in, I was feeling a fairly drained. When Yo La Tengo took the stage, it felt like a godsend. They absolutely tore it up. I would spend the next year calling them my favorite band. You could say my expectations were a little high when I made the two hour pilgrimage from Richmond to D.C. last Friday to see them play the 9:30 club. I wasn’t let down.

Yo La Tengo represent the last of the great first wave of American indie bands. With the exception of the Flaming Lips, they’re it. Fugazi are effectively dead, Sonic Youth are the underground’s estranged parents, and SST long ago resigned themselves to putting out jazz records and poorly engineered reissues of their heyday catalogue. There was a time when indie meant independent. It meant sleeping in vans or on carpets and playing gigs to no one. You can get a keyhole view of this lost age through relics like that old Replacements record or your dad’s Husker Du ticket stub (if your dad was awesome), but if you want to feel it, go see Yo La Tengo. They stand like the last dinosaur, beasts we often associate with irrelevancy, but let me ask you this: if a Tyrannosaurus trotted down your Death Cab for Cutsie-little suburban street, knocked on your door, and asked if you’d like to hear a little bit of a noise jam, would you find yourself in any position to say no?


The show was divided up into two sets. During the first, the trio took to their stools, playing through the best of their acoustic catalogue, strumming as softly as they sung. It was dream-pop at its finest, allowing me to imagine what it might have been like seeing a band like Galaxie 500 back in 1989. The opener was “Ohm,” the first track from their new album Fade, rearranged as a slow, vocally driven chant. As the three sung, blue lights behind them rose sluggishly, dancing and sneaking through the holes between the branches of the giant plastic trees set up at the back of the stage. It was breathtaking. The audience was silent; reverent. Every now and then, there would be a crash of breaking glass and a “shhhh!”

The performance totally recontextualized their new record. Though the themes of aging and death and resignation were obvious at first listen, hearing the songs live made it so much more vivid. Lead singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan’s voice was shot with pain, his eyes closed, his face poised and strained. The shivers really hit me during the stunning “Cornelia and Jane.” Drummer and long-time wife of Kaplan Georgia Hubley took the mic, her voice as angelic as it was in 1993. “Outside your window, neighbors peer in at you. How can we care for you? How can we hold on to you?” she asks insistently over Kaplan’s drifting lines of guitar. 

After about a 20 minute intermission, the band returned to the stage, fulfilling a promise they had made to a certain outspoken member of the audience to play “louder.” 30 years is plenty of time for a group like Yo La Tengo to soften up. I wouldn’t blame them if they decided to cut the show off and head home at 10:30. Instead, they shuffled back on stage to remind us all that they’re still the kings of noise. “Paddle Forward,” the harshest song from Fade, kicked off a set of classics like “We’re An American Band” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and Painful’s explosive “From a Motel 6,” a personal favorite. At their best, as on set highlight "False Alarm" from 1995's Electr-o-Pura, the band had the air in the room churning at gale force speeds. Bassist James McNew slammed down on his fuzz pedal, sending waves of feedback bouncing from the walls. Kaplan left his guitar behind, swinging a maraca as he spat the lyrics with overwhelming coolness. During the breaks, he attacked a nearby keyboard with his hands, crafting blurts of random noise as Hubley kept an impeccably tight beat. The band have become masters of improvisation, so much so that it's difficult to distinguish between what they put on record and what they threw in haphazardly mid-song during a swell of inspiration. Kaplan can make his guitar do whatever he pleases, shaping and sculpting it, throwing his fingers with casual precision. For the audience, it's a thrilling experience, just like any good stage show should be.

The encore itself was an event. Even on record, it always feels like it would be fun just hanging out with the three of them. That’s a major part of the appeal. They come from the same school of rock music that raised Kurt Cobain - respect the masters who came before you. They got back on stage and went straight into a 15 minute call-and-response rendition of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.” Kaplan descended upon the crowd, leg up on the monitor like Mick Jagger, wailing about pushing the button and kissing your ass goodbye. Next up was a tribute to the late Shadow Morton, legendary producer of the Shangri-La’s, who passed away earlier this week. The song was “Walkin’ In the Sand”, performed mostly from memory. The crowd was going nuts. To wrap it all up, they covered Big Star’s biggest tear-jerker, “Take Care,” which I had incidentally been listening to earlier that day. A perfect cap for a wonderful show. In the end, Yo La Tengo are just fans like you and me. Here’s to 30 more years. 

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