Yo La Tengo The Blue Note June 20, 2011
Should the New Jersey Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ever become a brick-and-mortar reality, Yo La Tengo had better have a wing to rival Springsteen's. For more than a quarter of a century now (and close to 20 years with James McNew, the last through a revolving door of bassists), this Hoboken trio has ceaselessly turned out singularly worthwhile recordings, and instilling pride in those of us who were raised in their home state.
But that's not why I drove two hours, in a car without air conditioning, to see them play in Columbia on a Monday night. After all, they've been frequent visitors to St. Louis, too, appearing at such venues as Mississippi Nights, The Pageant, and (once) Euclid Records' CD section. But this would be the only area show that featured the Wheel. I knew I had to be there.
Since November 2010, Yo La Tengo has been touring with a spinning wheel that includes nine different options. At the beginning of the night, the band calls up an audience member, has them give it a spin, and that becomes the structure for the first set. The options include everything from specialized themes (songs beginning with the letter "S," for instance, or songs that include people's names), to a set of songs by Dump, McNew's endearing solo project. Wackiest of all is "Sitcom Theater," where the band actually acts out a sitcom script. So far they've only done this once; the script was Seinfeld's classic "The Chinese Restaurant."
I won't pretend that I didn't have a favored outcome. I was hoping that it would be either the Dump set or "The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo," in which the band answers audience questions and plays requests. So when the Blue Note's video screen went up, the lights went down and the Wheel of Fortune theme played through the PA system (nice touch, that), the suspense was officially underway. Guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan explained the rules of the game, called up an audience member, and - for the sake of objectivity, apparently - offered her the option of wearing a motorcycle helmet or a dog mask while spinning the wheel. The audience member picked the helmet. The wheel spun and spun, finally landing on...The Sounds of Science, Part II.
Damn. Exactly the outcome I least wanted! This is why I don't gamble, folks.
A little background: Yo La Tengo have played a number of shows in which they perform live background music to French ocean documentaries. They performed this set at Webster University in 2005, in fact. Here, however, they would just be playing the music - no films would be shown. A little to the left and we'd have been treated to the only Dump show in Missouri history. I want a do-over!
To be fair, I hadn't actually seen the Webster performance or heard a note of The Sounds of Science. So I decided to indulge the spirit of randomness and give a fair listen. As it turns out, the instrumental pieces were flexible enough to hold our attention. Beginning with simple, repetitive keyboard lines, Kaplan, McNew and drummer Georgia Hubley slowly sculpted the sound, adding synthesized stabs and background swooshes, then controlled feedback. About twenty minutes in, Kaplan began grinding power chords out of his guitar, and they finally surfaced with what we know better as Yo La Tengo music - this band is nothing if the not the master of the slow build. At one point Hubley initiated a Bo Diddley beat while Kaplan and McNew generated some pseudo-funky sounds worthy of a 1960s driver's education film or KPM-style library music. It was all best appreciated from a balcony seat, but much more interesting and dynamic than I'd expected. The band finished up with a three-song miniset of songs by the Condo Fucks songs, their trash-cover alter ego, before taking a break.
Set Two was more of a standard show. Like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo can be unpredictable live. On an off night, they may indulge in their their longest, slowest songs (like the seventeen-minute "Night Falls On Hoboken," which was the opening song at two shows I've seen and sucked the life out of the room each time) or extended Kaplan guitar wankery. On a good night, there's no band in America that so effortlessly mixes pop songcraft with experimental noise. Tonight they opened with "Autumn Sweater" from 1996's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. It was a perfect breezy opener, especially given the 90-degree day we'd just had. The hits kept on coming from there: McNew's "Stockholm Syndrome," the almost twee-pop "Beanbag Chair," the acoustic version of "Big Day Coming," "From A Motel 6" with its hypnotic tremolo, "Sugarcube"...it was everything an old or new fan could have wanted.
Kaplan was unusually focused; within the framework of these song structures, he demonstrated why he's one of the most inventive guitarists working. He did all his usual tricks: banging on the fretboard, waving it around in front of the amps to generate more feedback, a bit of detuning, and flurries of notes that may or may not have had anything to do with actual chord structures. At one point he rubbed two guitar fretboards together. That was a new one on me. He did allow himself a trademark extendo-freakout on set-closer "I Heard You Looking."
The three-song encore included "Bad Politics," a driving cover by New Zealand lo-fi noise band Dead C, and two gentle acoustic numbers, "Alyda" (from 1992's May I Sing With Me) and the samba-flavored "Center of Gravity." It was a subdued but fitting end to an evening that was, at turns, surprisingly and comfortingly familiar. Critic's notebook: - The opening act was scheduled to have been Jonny, the new project from Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's Euros Childs. Unfortunately, they ended up cancelling their tour due to unspecified "unforeseen circumstances." I was at least as excited about seeing them as I was Yo La Tengo, but I do wonder whether three sets would have made the evening more of an endurance test.
- Yo La Tengo often pulls attentive but subdued crowds. In contrast, the Blue Note audience was delightfully demonstrative - clapping along to favorite songs, dancing and even starting a good-natured mini-slam pit.
- Credit where it's due: Elvis Costello performed with his own onstage spinning wheel as far back as 1986. He's exhumed the wheel for his current tour, which comes to the Pageant on July 1. Call it serendipity if you like. Whereas Yo La Tengo uses their wheel for one spin - and then lets that spin loosely dictate a portion of the event - Costello's wheel consists of a pool of songs that, through spins of the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," gets whittled down into a set list. Both have their pros and cons. Perhaps a Dueling Wheel tour is in order.
Set One: The Sounds of Science, Part II So Easy Baby With A Girl Like You Come On Up
Set Two: Autumn Sweater More Stars Than There Are In Heaven Tears Are In Your Eyes Stockholm Syndrome Beanbag Chair Black Flowers Big Day Coming (Part 1) Periodically Double or Triple From A Motel 6 Sugarcube I Heard You Looking
Encore: Bad Politics Alyda Center of Gravity