Monday, October 23, 2006

Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore 10/21/06

I love Yo La Tengo. How much? They beat out the Beatles, Percy Sledge, Springsteen, and everyone else as the song choice for the first dance at my wedding. With a cover of a forgotten disco song by George McCrae. That’s how good they are. Which explains why I’ll always see them live despite their tendency to do 15-minute-long feedback jams. Last Saturday was no different. Since I don’t yet own their new album – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass I was especially excited to hear the new material live.

why? opened the show, and they killed. The crowd was actually into the opener and disappointed to see them go, for a change. In fact it shouldn’t surprise me too much, since why? hails from Oakland, and the Bay Area certainly isn’t hurting for Anticon fans. Is there a succinct way to describe this band? They sound kind of like Lou Barlow fronting Steve Reich and Musicians. One dude plays drums and vibraphone simultaneously, one dude plays keys and guitar simultaneously, Yoni Wolf leads the group, plays organ, snare drum, and various little pitch/feedback boxes. He also beatboxes. They all sing and go crazy. Yoni Wolf is more or less what you’d expect from an Anticon member: he's Jewish, he loves hiphop but has better sense than to make it, he has a warped sense of language, and displays no respect whatsoever for genre boundaries. Hearing why? live was remarkable and unique, and when CDs come back into the budget I'll definitely buy the albums.

Yo La was their normal, withdrawn, awkward selves, but with a little more chattiness. Over the course of the night they proved -- as the new album title suggests -- that they aren’t afraid of shit. They opened with “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” not too much of a barn-burner but nice to hear. Georgia had kind of a raspy, unwarmed-up quality to her voice that coupled with Ira’s geeky rocking-out on the organ to crank the endearing quotient right up. But the show didn't really start until James launched into the monster bass vamp of “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” Holy cow, is that song menacing. Props to James for playing the same riff for 12 minutes without phoning it in, and props to Ira for making the various solo sections sufficiently different from one another while still getting across the overall message: “I Am Not Afraid of My Guitar and I Will Beat it to Death with My Hands.” After that, a happy detour for “Beanbag Chair,” segueing us into a piano section dominated by songs from the new album (which relies heavily on piano). They breezed through "I Feel Like Going Home" and “The Weakest Part,” pausing to channel Prince on “Mr. Tough.” Then into “Flying Lessons (Hot Chicken #1).” Not my favorite song but exhilarating to see live. The obsessive minor-key vamp gives Kaplan so much space to do crazy feedback solos. Also not my favorite thing, but for one night every year or so I’m willing to listen to a 4-minute feedback solo and Ira Kaplan's the guy to provide it.

In other news, the Fillmore got rid of their ice-cream sandwich desert…very sad, but I had apple pie. Highlight of the evening: me getting back to the floor, mouth full of apple pie and ice cream, just in time for Ira blast the intro to “Sugarcube.” I almost cried, because the sentiment of “Sugarcube” – trying to do better, or at least do whatever’s necessary to make someone happy – just resonates with me. It was one of the harder parts of growing up into a man and husband (so to speak). Doing what’s “objectively” right (or imitating the concerned nice guy on TV doing what's "right") is one thing, and I did that unfailingly for my first 3-4 relationships. It takes a lot more courage and risk to actually look at your own behavior, acknowledge the aspects of it that prevent you from being happy, and commit to change. Which isn’t to say that I’m an expert, just that I first heard this song around the same time I was trying to figure out how to be together with (as opposed to just in love with) Camille. So the song gets to me.

Then they played “Tom Courtenay,” which I love equally but I haven’t even bothered to learn the lyrics to (beyond the first and last few lines), so double good for me. One of my favorite Yo La Tengo tricks: Ira Kaplan singing over his own shrieking guitar squall, while Georgia and James hold the rhythm and harmony together. The end of “Tom Courtenay” offers an awesome example of this, with Ira repeating “I’m thinking about the needle” over and over. Have I mentioned how much I love Ira Kaplan? Yeah, I have.

The set proper closed with “The Story of Yo La Tango” [sic] and “Blue Line Swinger.” Live, “The Story of Yo La Tango” is damn near unlistenable because it’s so loud and screamy. I love the lyrics, though, and I suspect that (as with “Cherry Chapstick”) a very beautiful acoustic version is floating around somewhere. Actually, if I’m being honest, I know there’s some kind of acoustic version because Yo La Tengo appeared for about 15 seconds on the Gilmore Girls, playing that song. I didn’t watch the episode, I found it on Youtube. Really. I've watched Gilmore Girls, I admit, but it's not like I watch it. I already married into a family of smartmouth women who talk too fast -- why would I voluntarily watch one? Anyway, I think plays this tune so loud and squall-y because they want the audience covering their ears, scowling, leaving the venue, etc. They have cred to maintain.

“Blue Line Swinger” was perfect, and I mean perfect. It's such a unique song. The intro purposely turns off the crowd, with the endless organ loop and drum pageantry. Over time, the chord change gets burned into your head until you don’t even notice it. And the audience gets so used to hearing Ira’s guitar squeal and Georgia whanging away out of time that even people who know and love the song (like me) give up any hope of it improving. Then, when the beat finally kicks in and the organ loops line up with the drums and guitar, and James starts powering the low end, the wave of relief cannot be described. A good approximation would be "Woooooo!" Then Georgia starts singing the sublime melody, and you can never understand the lyrics when she sings, so it's fine for them to devolve into “Ba-ba-ba-dah” and ultimately fall apart. For that special feeling of having your brain put through a washing machine, buy Electro-Pura or just download “Blue Line Swinger.”

First encore: the theme from the new movie Old Joy, which Yo La Tengo scored, “Demons” from I Shot Andy Warhol, and a blistering cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which is a lame song (and it rips off the Beatles verbatim) but they put it over.

Second encore: A bad song by Stoneground (I don’t know anything about this San Francisco band from 30 years ago, and there appears to be a reason for that), “My Little Corner of the World,” and a heartbreakingly beautiful version of “Take Care.”

Third encore: “Big Sky” from Yo La Tengo’s first album Ride the Tiger. This song, like the others on that album, is almost good but not quite. It still made the diehard fans happy, though, and the fans like me who only listen to the band's good material got a timely reminder that almost-good Yo La Tengo’s still better than the rest.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh man, I would kill to see them do "Beanbag Chair," "Mr. Tough" and "I feel Like Going Home" live. I love those songs. Sucks that they didn't do "Autumn Sweater" or Stockholm Syndrome" though. Gotta love songs inspired by psycholbabble inspired by Baader-Meinhof