Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yo La Tengo @ The Rio, 10-17-09, Santa Cruz

I go to concerts about, well, as often as YLT releases CDs. I hardly go to any at all. But, I realized that three gigs and three mes makes a record, so to speak, for me since about 1988. An ex- loved "X," the local L.A. punk-folkabilly troupers, and as I did too (until breaking up with her ruined them for me to ever hear again), that was the one band I'd seen a lot-- even once at Magic Mountain theme park.

With my non-ex, I risk the danger, if she ever becomes my next ex-, of not being able to hear again with pleasure not only Her All-Time Favorite Singer-Songwriter (and to her, he's cute) Paul Westerberg (solo even, even when execrable, as well as with his punk-poppers The Replacements), but a band I liked long before I met her, Yo La Tengo. Hoboken N.J.'s finest may have started with other bands only I have heard of like The Individuals, The Schramms, or The Bongos way back in the early '80s, but only YLT has outlasted not only esteemed peers such as neighbors The Feelies, but every other band from that time who I admire(d), including R.E.M.

While R.E.M. has paralleled YLT's career most nearly in duration and timeframe, the Georgians unfortunately with "Reveal" & "Around the Sun" made duds that made the hit-and-miss, if wonderfully titled, last two platters from the Jersey trio, "I'm Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass" and the just-as-archly named "Popular Songs" at least somewhat better CDs. I actually buy, even in straitened circumstances of late, each new YLT CD right away. I stopped doing this for R.E.M. a decade ago. (Although I have 'em all except the crappy concert one; YLT oddly lacks the expected double-live release.) I have yet to queue up "Accelerate" from my stack; still, it'd be hard to do worse than R.E.M.'s pair of studio plastic jokers.

Also, speaking of Hudson River artsy 80's-starting contenders, YLT and Sonic Youth represent two of the other longest lasting critically acclaimed indie rockers who came out of the alternative "college rock" American post-punk scene. Yet, I'd argue, even against SY's louder legions, that YLT more than SY has produced a stronger set of albums consistently improving since '84. SY had some clunkers post-"Daydream Nation." Even their second wind this decade, while respectable, fails to move me much deep down. Still, I admire with both bands their commitment to quality. All the same, as they walked from the audience with whom they were indistinguishable, up on the stage of The Rio, YLT try less hard to be cool, too.

Chris noted the crowd was the most sober he'd witnessed lately. As he's a denizen of many Bay Area shows, take that as you will. Certainly, YLT comes off as genuinely nice, from their website, the fact that they bring along as a cook on tour the guy who handles otherwise their mail-order, and their playing legendary charity shows the eight nights of each Chanukah back at the club that made their name way back in Hoboken, tiny Maxwell's. You can tell they all ardently love listening to music as much as they play it. They've spent their time at swap meets and with cassette decks rather than in art school or carefully louche bars. They often pair up with great line-ups; their recent Scottish concerts found them with Euros Childs, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, whose albums I have praised here, (He's from the excellent Welsh lysergic folk-pop experimentalists Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.)

As their encore with Roy Loney of The Flaming Groovies showed, YLT knows its rock history, and even if I cannot join the acclaim for such an brave artifact as trotted out, I acknowledge their curatorial care for the legacy of our own Popular, and less such, deserving Songs and those who sing them in small halls and ride away on tour buses and for a quarter- of half-century continue, off the charts not out of fame but because of love, to make music and are lucky enough to make a living at it at my age and well beyond.

Unlike Husker Du or the Minutemen, Big Black or Black Flag, YLT early on as now appeals more to a more educated, less rude crowd of less edgy, more romantic, if equally rock geek youths. Audiences full of not only collegiate types like yours truly, but those who'd become, or spawn, hipsters and their ilk today. While they did all stand up in front of me and never sat down, I figured, given the lack of visual appeal of YLT (sort of like picking three middle-aged customers out of an indie record store's vintage section and putting them up under bright lights without sunglasses) it mattered little. Such profiles filled The Rio: downmarket casual college kids alongside those who could be or were their parents, now my peers. I wondered if any UCSC students had their moms or dads along for the evening.

With fellow fans Bob & Chris, we ate at Lillian's Italian Kitchen across Soquel Ave. our pasta and wandered over to the venue. (Being a native Angeleno, I feared losing our parking space in a place a hundredth the size of my city. But logic told me the ratio of spots to drivers would be the same.) Endless Boogie, a very well-named band once again, opened. Chris found the singer a Prince Valiant-meets-Frankenstein fellow, lurching about incoherently. He later sent me a photo of the band and close-up I can attest that the lead axeman-vocalist proves even scarier in b/w than afar on stage at this film theater turned venue. B & C soon went up to "dance" after being audibly pummelled by the opening act.

EB only played three long songs. I compared them to Humble Pie; Bob to trance of a sort, the kind you made yourself enter. Layne fled to play with her BlackBerry, although many people did just that in their seats. I probably endured them the best of we four punters, as I like psychedelic rock in small doses and convinced a chagrined Chris to buy "Space Ritual" by Hawkwind-- as you can see on the side of this blog one of my top 20 LPs alongside YLT's "May I Sing With Me." Trouble is, Chris can play music, and so can Bob, so they hear it better than can I. Unaided even by secondhand smoke, I guess I can get more in-- as a non-combatant who cannot tell a semitone from a quaver-- to distorted stoner rock music to a degree if (a big if) the voice proves tolerable.

And this being Santa Cruz, full of students and those who never left after college, where most of us four signed in line to get in a petition to legalize it that will be on next year's ballot perhaps-- but I wonder which politician will dare to support it; I'm waiting for a fiscal conservative to lead the way for tax incentives-- the air inside The Rio filled with redolent haze. I think that would have enhanced any listener to Endless Boogie. It sure did its staggering singer.

YLT came on and played well. Probably their best of their three shows. The best band in the country, at a place about a few hundred full in a coastal trendy city a hundred miles south of San Francisco, where they always sold out the Fillmore. They came on, James McNew with a sweet voice and big body on bass; Georgia Hubley on drums and even with mallets for one pounding song; her husband Ira Kaplan doing the Lou Reed-meets-bedroom mirror spaz air guitar with his real Fenders in a row.

They began with the feedback of "From a Motel 6" and ended with "Blue Line Swinger." That's a long jam which starts off very annoying with a thudding, almost jazz-like percussion, but speeds up into satisfying freakout in YLT all-nighter swagger and sway-- my favorite of their many moods. On the last couple records they've laterally shifted, for understandable variety from their guitar-pop and distorted epic overload, into shorter tunes full of an earlier 60's ambiance: hepcat, Motown, twee-funk, bossa nova. These downtown poses from affectionate fans as they themselves surely are of modern music I understand intellectually (as with jazz) but they fail (as with jazz) to move me inside. Now, being very white, as my wife says via a musician friend that my own rock-geek collection shows that I listen "from the waist up."

The trio walked on stage with an odd backdrop of their new album cover, "Popular Songs," which had displayed enlarged motifs of vintage buttons, plain not political. As my wife has a box full of these labelled atop the upstairs cable box with a post-it: "Buttons," I figured she'd like the artwork. I thought it was dorky, although it fit the band's non-aesthetic and their thrift-store calculated retro-ish acquisitive but humble tastes. They are about as old as we are.

The buttons did look better when strobed; I assume again (despite Chris's observation?) that chemicals may have heightened for not a few the fun of this Saturday night in this town. In closing, as a footnote, I must note a certain couple ahead of us who will go down in our personal history as evocative of my continued fear of ruining this band, or this CD at least, for my listening pleasure in perpetuity; even by local standards they defied at least my jaded expectations. Rent-boy Garth [not balding Brooks but as in "Wayne's World"] in a blonde-dyed job and a t-shirt that I stared at three seats back all night: "I'm Techno and You're Not" and Mariachi geezer in silver-studded leather belt polyester shiny blue pants.

My wife has a pet theory. Couples that make music together reveal a tension and release different than other players. John Doe & Exene Cervenka once they split never made music as good as when they headed "X" together. Sonic Youth with Thurston & Kim boasts its own steady pair; ever since Kim looked like Hillary Rodham circa Radcliffe '68. I always wondered if Husker Du broke up since they had two talented, songwriting, contentious, angry gay guys out of three, whereas that straight third man wore (akin to the one surnamed "Beard" in ZZ Top lacking such) a Mario Bros. meets barbershop quartet meets Castro St elegantly waxed moustache. (He later became a cook. YLT should have hired him.)

Tellingly, my wife's favorite song of YLT: "Stockholm Syndrome." Georgia & Ira, I once read, find when one leaves the house that the other has left the amps tuned all awry when the partner returns. I wonder how their music changes when they play alone? Intriguingly, only when the regular bassist joined a few LPs into YLT's career did the band truly find its cohesion; McNew plays with himself in the curiously titled solo project as "Dump" and his tunes match YLT's in a sweet & sour blend of tart indie guitar pop-garage-rock.

We all need somebody to love, if only for a night out. I must envision whirled peas and practice tolerance, as a bumper sticker doubtless would have chided me in the parking lot alongside Bob's Prius (of course) of this very earnest, but unfailingly pleasant, city that I have always enjoyed visiting since I was ten. Funny that outré sexuality and Santa Cruz linked early, if erratically, in my formation. (That leads to my "Sambo's, Sex & Me" -- this got far more comments last year than my usual egghead blather here.)

I happily walked out, sitting halfway back from the stage-- where Chris said the sound was worse-- with my fragile hearing (a lifelong reason I tend to avoid concerts, that and my dislike of fellow man) miraculously intact. The shredded, frayed, frilly waves of YLT wafted over us all, and we all got our $20 worth on our own memorable night on the town, part of our own certain couples. (Photo from a tour three years ago, but neither they nor we change much in rumpled looks, or so we pretend.)

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