LIVE: Yo La Tengo @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 9/23/15
Review by Ross Marvin
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Yo La Tengo Live: Faking it So Well for So Long & Stuff Like That There…
With Ira Kaplan on acoustic guitar/vocals, wife Georgia Hubley standing at her small MoeTucker-esque drum kit with brushes and mallets, James McNew on stand-up bass, and special guest Dave Schramm on lead electric guitar, the two-hour, two-set show marked the band’s first Greater Nippertown appearance since 1998. The show also kicked off their fall tour in support of Stuff Like That There (Matador Records), a worthy sequel to their unparalleled 1990 release Fakebook. which featured a similar mix of covers and re-imaginings of Yo La Tengo originals.
Playing in front of a nearly full house of what might be called Upstate Music Sophisticates (spotted: a New Paltz record store owner; the lead singer of a Pitchfork-reviewed local band; owner of the Low Beat; several Nippertown.com contributors; an original Stiff Records punk pioneer; an assortment of authors, artists and gallery directors; many wearers of horned rimmed glasses and beards; and at least two patrons who brought books to read while waiting for the prime-time, no-opener show) the Hoboken DIY legends and earnest record enthusiasts covered decades of musical ground. It was a night of milestones — 30 years as a band; 25 years since the release of Fakebook; a reunion with former member Dave Schramm; and the first concert in support of their FOURTEENTH full-length record. Perhaps what holds as the most remarkable feat is how wonderful it is to watch Georgia and Ira as a couple. Ever since Thurston and Kim called it quits, Hubley and Kaplan are the last bastion of successful indie rock marriages.
Without a wall of feedback to hide behind, the band was at its most vulnerable. The whispery beauty of Ira and Georgia in vocal harmony was supported by the trance-inducing grooves of bassist McNew. Dave “Secret Weapon” Schramm added the variety on tasty lead guitar and lap steel where Kaplan (usually found wailing by his amplifier) served as a reserved acoustic rhythm player. While the double set of acoustic numbers may have threatened to become a bit “samey,” Schramm’s presence prevented the possibility of boredom. The balance of original songs and covers of record-collector favorites also provided for anticipation in the audience, whose members frequently called out requests for Fakebook favorites.
The award for the cover tune of the night went to the uber-hooky Herman Hermits’ rarity “(I Gotta) Dream On,” which Kaplan said he first heard as a kid when his babysitter played it. The song can be found as the A-side on the rare, sold-out cassingle that was packaged with the deluxe version of Stuff Like That There. It can’t even be found on YouTube, folks! The lilting-country of opener “Tried So Hard,” perfect pop of “Butchie’s Tune” and the warped folk of “Griselda” were all highlights. An unexpected and anxious version of Devo’s “Bottled Up” (James McNew’s lone turn on lead vox) also deserves honorable mention as a track that doesn’t appear on any album, but showed up in this High Holiday set. After an intermission to “check the Mets score” the sprightly doo-wop of set-two opener “Somebody’s in Love” served as the perfect soundtrack for a Metropolitan fan swooning over his team’s late season success.
Of Yo La Tengo’s original songs on display, a bare-bones version of “Pass the Hatchet, I’m Goodkind” from the band’s 2006 album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass was perhaps the most unlikely. Its krautrock bass line and guitar drone were about the closest to pure noise-rock all night and did make me wish for just a little more unabashed, heavy ROCK. At times, the stream of lullabies reminded me of the slow-core pioneers Low, a band that records beautifully but falls short in person in anything other than an opening role. Still, in “Ohm” (my favorite track off of 2013’s Fade) Yo La Tengo proved that almost no one else does “soft” as well as they do. And while the covers made for a lot of fun, the stripped-down versions of songs like “Deeper into Movies,” “Tom Courtenay” (which featured Georgia in place of Ira on vocals) and the new “Awhileaway” revealed contemplative and mature lyrics, which came to the forefront in these arrangements. The words weighed heavy, especially when the subject veered into relationship territory. That tension of singing with AND about the person you love has long been an alluring aspect of the band and continues to be a point of interest if only to those who romanticize the possibilities of starting a band with their significant other. It is pretty dreamy — the idea of cooking dinner together and then going into the living room, tripping over guitar cables and reels of recorded demos. In reality, it is probably a lot of close quarters, stinky van rides and hard practice, but I’d rather daydream.
Like a fine dessert, the quartet saved the best for last. In an encore that boasted the trio of “Yellow Sarong,” “The Summer” and “Speeding Motorcycle,” Hubley and Kaplan revealed three qualities that made them indie favorites: In “Yellow Sarong”, they championed a kind of musical democracy, revealing an idiosyncratic, but beautiful garage rock tune by contemporaries the Scene is Now; In their original “The Summer,” they proved that they can do a Velvets impression without feeling inauthentic or too-cool-for-school; and in “Speeding Motorcycle” they unearth Daniel Johnson from the underground and play with a child-like sincerity that parallels the best of Jonathan Richman’s work.
Lord knows how many Gen Xers listened to Fakebook and then sought out the Kinks, NRBQ or the Rounders’ Have Moicy! While critics have been quick to call Stuff Like That There less essential than Fakebook, I think Yo La Tengo will continue to accomplish their goal of sending fellow music heads into the bins at record stores to find more from the likes of Sun Ra, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Antietam and Great Plains. I know that’s the effect the album had on me.
And judging from the number of people leaving Wednesday’s concert with a fresh vinyl copy of Stuff Like That There under their arms, I doubt I am the only one getting a $20 pop music history lesson from teachers Georgia and Ira. Viva Yo La Tengo! And, since my beloved Orioles don’t have what it takes this season, let’s go Mets!
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “You know how, when someone speaks very quietly, you lean close and go quiet yourself? Yo La Tengo seemed to draw everyone onstage at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Wednesday with soft, slow, sincere music that sounded like nerd night at the Grand Ole Opry… Covering classics and their own tunes, they started with Gene Clark’s desperate, soft-spoken ‘Tried So Hard’ with alternating Kaplan and Hubley vocals and Schramm’s first great James-Burton-via-Marc-Ribot guitar solo. Their own ‘Is That Enough’ echoed it in sentiment and sound; as did almost everything in their two short, easy-rolling sets. The first closed with the Cure’s ‘Friday I’m In Love,’ carried to the barn on Hubley’s vocal, though her best offering was probably the evocative cityscape ‘Naples’ by pals Antietam; it followed Hermans Hermits’ ‘Dream On’ and preceded Devo’s ‘Bottled Up.'”
YO LA TENGO SET LIST
Tried So Hard (Gene Clark)
Is That Enough
My Heart’s Not in It (Darlene McCrea)
(I Gotta) Dream On (Herman’s Hermits)
Bottled Up (Devo)
Automatic Doom (Special Pillow)
Griselda (Holy Modal Rounders)
Deeper Into Movies
Friday I’m in Love (The Cure)
Somebody’s in Love (The Cosmic Rays with Le Sun Ra and Arkestra)
Butchie’s Tune (the Lovin’ Spoonful)
Over You (Velvet Underground)
Feelin’ Low (Ernie Chaffin)
Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind
What Can I Say (NRBQ)
Our Way to Fall
Yellow Sarong (The Scene Is Now)
Speeding Motorcycle (Daniel Johnston)