Sunday, November 4, 2007

Yo La Tengo: Ivar Theatre, Hollywood.

Last night, Nov. 4, taking advantage of the "fall back" option-- delayed a week this year by Bush 43 I guess to allow the Halloweeners more daylight savings?-- my devoted spouse and I went to both Saturday shows of YLT. According to their site, logically here's The Concept:

The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo Tour is a rare opportunity to see this ever-surprising band in a setting more intimate and interactive than any tour in their 23-year career. A little bit "Storytellers", a little bit "Unplugged", with a soupcon of their famously varied Hanukkah shows, it will feature the band playing an almost-acoustic set of songs from their entire catalog, with stories about their life as a band, and an encouraged back-and-forth with the audience. Already famous for never playing the same show twice, this fresh look at Yo La Tengo offers rare insight into one of the most important, unique, and beloved bands in American rock. Yo La Tengo's latest CD, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, will be the springboard for these shows, though anything can and will happen from there.

Actually, Ira Kaplan claimed the band was 24 years old; I had heard of them in the mid-80s reading the magazine "Option," but their Matador early records were, in those days of vinyl and trucks to deliver music, hard to come by Out West. It wasn't until at Rasputin's in Berkeley around '89 that I finally found "President," the e.p. that made a few critics take notice of Hoboken's finest (along with the Bongos, Individuals, Schramms, and Feelies -Trypes-Yung Wu-Speed the Plough configurations-- see, I know my trivia). One of my favorite songs ever's on that e.p., now issued on CD with their second LP, "New Wave Hot Dogs." "The Story of Jazz" has a typically bedroom-geek playing his guitar shriek, a spazzy unhinged series of riffs spiralling down, and a fantastic bass run that closes the three-minute tune decisively. I wanted to shout it out last night.

That's what fans did: yell out questions, some as dumb as where the band was from, how did they meet, how did they get their name. Ira gave a different answer than the standard one crediting YLT to a couple of Mets's fielders from south of the border. He claimed that they wanted a name not in English and "we found it in a book." The evening, being acoustic if not devoid of feedback thanks to pedals and distortion, was just right for me. Many fans, like me, probably enjoyed sitting in a theatre of about 400 to see this band, perennial critical darlings who, unlike any other band of the past nearly quarter-century to emerge from the early 80s college rock American alternative (when that term mattered) scene, have gotten better with time and who never made a bad album.

The early ones played up the folksy eclecticism; Ira remarked of this time how writing original material wore on them. Clearly, with "Fakebook" following "President," their winning streak started. "May I Sing With Me," "Painful," (which I heard one New Year's Eve at midnight on the clock radio as fireworks echoed), "And Then Nothing" (a bit jazzy, however), and especially "I Can Hear the Heart" established a solid set of albums, each with excellent songs and surprisingly few that I skip. They have held up far better than, say much of their better-known, rival record collecting geeks REM in the post-Nirvana, pre-9/11 period that saw alternative rock enter the mainstream.

Later CDs have slowed. I admit "Summer Sun" is rather gloomy, and "I Am Not Afraid" is played far far more often by wife than me. (I like the two gnarly freakouts more than the pop with a jazz tinge that this famously improvisational trio increasingly explores-- blame their enthusiasm for Sun Ra Orkestra but better them than Daniel Johnston; Jonathan Richman's bad enough.) Still, James McNew's bass-- as alluded to by Ira-- made the band the musicians-- rather than merely Velvet-Dylan-Kinks fans playing their influences-- what they have been for the past, I guess, two decades: a musically adept, genuine, and intelligent ensemble.

He knew the chords, he anchored the sound in a patient, intimate, and nuanced beat, and allowed Georgia Hubley-- who did nearly all of both sets with brushes-- to roam about as her husband squawked and grimaced as if Albert Brooks found himself on stage. The highlights were covers of the Byrds' ditty "Have You Seen Her Face," The Only Ones' "The Whole of the Law," and especially a song I knew they did in concert and which, I boast, probably five people at most that night knew in the original. Asked for a campaign song, they suggested "Drug Test" (which they played later) or "Bad Politics" by The Dead C, a seriously underground NZ noise trio even more cultish than YLT. I know, as I have all their albums on CD and had labored mightily to hunt them down-- I would have liked to know (given I saw them previously supported by David Kilgour of The Clean, and a song from him or them was playing on the system as we left the second show) what other Flying Nun or Xpressway-affiliated bands they admired. I think Chris Knox or Graeme Downes would be great collaborators with YLT.

Originals were fine-- L. recognized "Stockholm Syndrome" opening the first set; I admit many of their longer, 2000-era songs escape me as to titles-- one with Playhouse or Tried So Hard (but NOT the Gene Clark song they covered on "Fakebook"--this rock self-referentialism gets tricky) went over well, as did "Sugarcube," "By the Time It Gets Dark," "We're An American Band," a fantastic "Deeper Into Movies" (Ira and James deadpanned on the whole Tinseltown mystique) and one that was or very much like the Byrds.

Fans called for "Sugarcube" (great version) and "Stockholm" in set two but were disappointed. L. said the band was peppier and the show Friday flowed better. However, I got to miss therefore (I wound up wishing I went, as L. gave away the ticket as the show did not sell out-- this largesse may pay the good vibes forward, but I'd have pocketed the $26 or used it to buy a couple of CDs I've been thriftily coveting) a few of my less preferred tracks, such as "Autumn Sweater." They did reprise the latter, improving on the tiresome studio version(s). So did "Cherry Chapstick" and they did a Dylan song I did not know (not hard, given my lack of familiarity with much of His Bobness compared to the band's obvious encyclopedic knowledge as shown in their annual radio station fundraiser "YTL Murders the Classics"--see their webpage). I could hear-- given my inability to attend electrically amped concert venues as my ears, from the first time at one, blew out--in such a tamped setting their edgy, restless, wistful tunes, extending noise and tranquility equally well.

Luckily, although a fan behind us yelled for "Nuclear War," they passed; the two sets moved along nicely, but, seeing that the first set had us in the very back row and, getting out to the exit first, we got to be #'s 5-6 in line for set two, the front row ten feet from the band allowed us to see their weariness. It seemed James had command of the music better than Ira, and the quieter Georgia often looked drawn. A fan asked them what they think about during long songs. While she rejoined with "and what do you think about?" I liked the question. They make a living at their dream come true, and their craft, intimacy, and breadth of imagination make them, as I have contended long before my wife began playing them more than I do, the best American band of the past two decades.

I kept wanting L. to ask a question: either about their cook on the road or-- I would have impishly asked James-- her theory that couples in bands who have sex (with each other) make a different kind of wonderful music together. Or emotionally fraught and raw. Ira and Georgia evidently know both realms well. It makes me curious how James handles it all-- his aplomb, after all, set the band on the course that led to their greatest music. I hope they get some rest; their eight nights of Hanukkah charity concerts will begin a month from now.

(Image: YLT's home-field advantage: 1998, Maxwell's, Hoboken NJ. Haven't changed much in nine years; they wore the same clothes the night before that they did last night!)

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