Yo La Tengo
Iowa Memorial Union Wheelroom
For nearly twenty years, Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo have provided indie-rock’s landscape with their critically blessed albums and generous live shows. By generous, I mean that one not familiar with Yo La Tengo’s landscape can expect a fairly loose setlist, one that may rework an arrangement of a favorite original or destroy a treasured cover. So one has to be somewhat generous, or unforgiving, when the band rolls into town to perform live. One may also need to “understand” that this behavior is also an end-product of music fanatics like Y.L.T. themselves. After all, part of having an “indie-cred” is to 1.) having a huge music database/collection of your own and 2.) pulling out musical references/nostalgia from nowhere. And Yo La Tengo has tons of indie-cred, as their recent performance at I.M.U.’s Wheelroom demonstrated.
This attitude could be a curse in the wrong hands, but Y.L.T. always seemed like to really be as sweet as their press would have you believe. Indeed, judging from the smiles of band members Ira, Georgia, and James, you gotta be easy of on them for every missed note, poor vocal mix, or half-assed cover simply because they look like they’re having a blast just playing for you. A cynic might balk at the idea of spending fifteen bones to watch a bunch of 40-somethings noodle around for 90 minutes, but that same cynic probably doesn’t have the life experience, musical knowledge or record collection of any one of these Hoboken saints either.
That same cynic might not have recognized some of the enormous talent that joined Yo La Tengo on the stage that night, as part of a self-declared “get out the vote and vote for John Kerry” music get-together. For three hearts became eight as David Kilgore (The Clean), Rick Rizzo, Doug McCombs (both of Eleventh Dream Day), Damon & Naomi (formerly of Galaxie 500) all stood by Y.L.T.’s side (sort of) in kind of an indie-rock super group. The trouble with I.M.U.’s “Wheelroom,” aside from poor visibility, is that the stage simply wasn’t big enough to fit all members on at once, thereby forcing Mr. McCombs to play off stage and for all band members to play a virtual game of Twister whenever they switched instruments (which was often).
Logistics aside, the show started with “Bad Politics” immediately after a television broadcasting the Bush/Kerry debate was shut off. While James McNew struggled to get the septet off the ground, the band launched into the “fast” version of “Sugarcube” which pointed to the reason why you don’t see many seven-piece indie-bands on the road these days: the separation between instruments suddenly becomes a wash of sound with no real distinction, especially when said band doesn’t quite have the mixing equipment (or p.a.) to define each instrument. Things got a little better with the third at-bat “Little Eyes” from their latest Matador release “Summer Sun.” Coming from the power-pop version of “Sugar Cube” into such a lilting song like “Little Eyes” was quite a train-wreck to be sure, but with Ira Kaplan’s Garcia influenced guitar sound standing out over the rest of the din, things started to look up for the evening.
Another concern, however, became the democracy of the night as time was allowed for each performer to highlight some of their own material too. This created numerous technical challenges, particularly when David Kilgore began to get a little frisky with his Stratocaster only to have ghosts in the machine mute his fretwork towards the end of his song. Damon & Naomi, minimalists from day one, turned the tide on the democracy idea by providing a great Tim Buckley cover as well as material from their excellent output. Rick Rizzo also managed to bring things up a notch with a few of his own pennings that made me miss the day when Eleventh Dream Day was around, spreading their Midwestern Television guitar wrangling across the college radio landscape. The crowd agreed, providing Rick with a warm reception prompting him to utilize every bit of stage space allowed to him as well as every fret of his road-weary Les Paul. I wished to hear more of him and wished that Eleventh Dream Day provided him with more recognition than what was granted.
Eugene Mirman also was on the bill providing comic relief, but his material mainly served as set breaks for the band and was over by the time the audience really started to figure out his comedic approach. The guy is funny, but he was only allowed as much time as a Late Show appearance and he had to contend with, again, the small confines of the Wheelroom stage which was particularly treacherous given Mirman’s notion for playing his home made videos.
The night and the crowd were there for one reason and it certainly wasn’t to gather support for John Kerry as the vast majority of attendees were already firmly in Kerry’s camp. No, the audience spent their money to hear Yo La Tengo and, unfortunately, only about half of them found enough patience to stick it out until the very end. By 11:00pm, much of the crowd had given up on the give and take of the setlist and headed out for (I’m assuming) a cold-one as this was an all-ages, dry (read: no booze) event. It certainly doesn’t bode well for those folks’ own hip factor, as Ira pulled out some amazing Robert Quine inspired guitar solos and all three (nay, all eight) brought a few surprises for the show’s three song encore. Ending out the evening was a record collectors wet dream of cover songs: Devo’s “Beautiful World,” Adam & The Ants “Antmusic,” followed by Sun Ra’s “Somebody’s In Love.” Three wonderful, obscure choices from a record collection that most certainly rivals most of those in attendance that night. But what do you expect from three members of a two-decade old band with a little help from some friends with tons of their own indie-cred between them?