Wednesday, December 12, 2012

20th century American bloody mushroom cult (Concert review: Yo La Tengo at Maxwell's December 11, 2012)

In another post (and another), I told you all about my love for Yo La Tengo, Hoboken's finest contribution to the annals of indierock. For the serious YLT junkie, there is no gig-going opportunity greater than the eight-night run that they do, most years since 2001, at Maxwell's in their hometown for Hanukkah. From my home in the wilds of rural NJ, Hoboken takes a little effort to get to. The easiest way is to pretend you are headed into the Holland Tunnel (into NYC) and then basically hang a left at one of the last possible opportunities before being sucked into the Big Apple. Right, the Holland Tunnel -- what a freak show *that* ride often is -- but when YLT, and particularly YLT at Hanukkah, is the reward for slogging through heavy traffic, the trip is well worth it.

So what was I to think when yesterday's traffic was nearly non-existent, and the painful ride was, well, painless? After a delicious festival of meat and greens at Dinosaur BBQ in Newark, I sailed into Hoboken without a hitch, parked in a nearby garage for the ridiculously bargain price of $10 and waltzed into Maxwell's to meet my friend Kyle. Were the gods of karma warning me that tonight's show would be a snoozer?

I refused to believe it. Yeah, a few years back, I had drifted away from YLT just a bit. The glory of their '90s albums had given way to an overwhelming quiet in the first half of the 2000s that didn't quite excite me like their earlier stuff. But, ever since 2006's  I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and 2009's Popular Songs, YLT were, to quote Frank Constanza, "back, baby." Both of those records contained a few longer, noisier, glorious anthems that the early 2000s records had lacked. And even the quieter songs on them had a certain groove that seemed to be lacking just a few years earlier. But, oh... Those.  Noisier.  Ones. Double-emphasis on "glorious."And of course, in September, I had just seen that wonderful Philly gig. All of this added up to a refusal in my mind to think that I hadn't suffered enough in traffic to see a great gig. Hell no, they were going to rule.

But, really, how often does one enter a gig of *any* band with such high hopes and have them completely fulfilled? In my experience, not often. Call it the exception. Call Yo La Tengo maybe (just maybe) the best damn live band out there right now. Call it all whatever you want.
It was, very simply, to quote my friend Kyle at her first ever YLT show, "totally amazing."

Indie/jangly/psych kids Real Estate opened. I could complain that I wish they had a little more distortion in their weapons cache, but, damn, if they didn't shimmer nearly perfectly. They won huge points with me for keeping their set to a manageable length and for not copping a rockstar vibe at all. I liked 'em. Then Todd Barry -- yeah, the very funny comedian -- came out for a short set (YLT Hanukkah shows always have a comedian on the bill) and he was very very funny. I am no connoisseur of comedy, but I dig edgy, sarcastic, brutal and funny. He was all those things. Nice work, sir.

On to the main event.... Now, I've told you that I like YLT at their most earthshatteringly aggressive/loud. But I really *do* dig the quiet Velvets-y bits in between. I just don't want them to dominate the show. The setlist was, dare I say, perfect in striking that balance (and thanks to Jesse Jarnow at the Frank and Earthy Blog for the setlist; Jesse is The Man for all things YLT, including Big Day Coming, his book about the band, which I reviewed here):

Spec Bebop
We’re An American Band
The Crying of Lot G
20th Century Boy (T-Rex)
Out the Window
The Point of It
The Summer
Don’t Have To Be So Sad
Double Dare (acoustic)
Big Day Coming (fast)
Nothing To Hide
Mushroom Cloud of Hiss
Burnin’ For You (Blue Öyster Cult) (with Todd Barry on drums)
Our Way To Fall (with Martin Courtney of Real Estate on vocals)

I have always thought of Spec Bebop as a little bit of a filler song on 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One -- a nice lead-in to We're An American Band (a YLT original, not a Grand Funk cover), but still a bit of a lesser beast in the formidable company of the rest of that wonderful record.

I swear..... I will never think that again. See, last night the drummer for a band called Oneida -- with which I am, at the moment still unfamiliar, but that moment isn't going to last long -- named Kid Millions, sat in with YLT for the whole main set. Wow. Just total effing wow. He was the perfect addition. He played around, under and with Georgia when they drummed together. But never drowned her out or walked on her. The man had subtlety and groove to spare. When James hit the button on an iPod to start the set with a jacked-up (in volume) track of the drum part from the album version of Spec Bebop, I thought, momentarily, "WTF? You have two drummers up there already!!" But, I was so wrong. Georgia and the Kid layered all over and around what was already playing and it was a tribal groovefest to which James and Ira added keys and bass, respectively, to let us know that this was no early-'00s quiet set.


We were off to the races. And it was a dynamic race at that. We're An American Band got so intense in its rising and falling waves of power that Ira, having switched to ear-shredding guitar for that one, was bleeding from his hands by the time the song finished.

Things got a little quieter for Lot G, but that was -- along with Don't Have to Be So Sad -- one of the early '00s songs that benefitted a lot from the extra drumming of Kid Millions. It swung; it grooved, just a little more than before, and the rest of the band responded in intensity. The VU would be so proud.

The last time I saw YLT do 20th Century Boy was New Year's Eve 1999.... wearing gorilla suits. Yes. Really. It was very funny, but I had kind-of assumed that was a one-off cover, y'know with the timeliness of it at the time. But no. In the YLT Hanukkah tradition of "we're much more likely to cover it if there was a Jew involved with the original" the band resurrected the cover to great effect. James owned the vocal. And then they blasted through Out the Window, both drummers grinning giddily through much of the whole thing.

Things got quieter for the next three, but, as I said, "quiet" never equated with "dull." These songs were gorgeous and perfect (except maybe I remember a bit of a skronky keyboard on one, but no matter....).

And, for godssakes, even the transition songs were perfect. Double Dare is usually an electric stunner, but its acoustic-y version was intense, but not loud. It had all the power, but none of the growl of the original.

And then came that growl.... OK, more like a *howl*....

I kid you not when I say that the closing four songs of the main set were a perfect ever-building wall of  attack and power. The full-on electric version of Big Day Coming is, I believe, the song I have seen YLT do over the years more than any other, and it just keeps getting a little more bold, a little more ballsy. Put two drummers on it, and it gets bigger, stronger, faster. And they ran it straight into Nothing to Hide which then, just like in Philly a few months back, ran right into Decora. And I remember thinking, "This is all so crazy that I think we're gonna get a Mushroom Cloud of Hiss tonight." And, damn, if Decora didn't end and James launched into a booming, speeding bassline of, yes, hissssssss.

If, as they are not at all prone to do, YLT were to ask me what one song of theirs I would want them to play, the answer is simple: Mushroom Cloud of Hiss. I went a little nuts.

In case, you aren't familiar with it, it goes like this:

It thunders; it roars; Ira screams his head off and turns colors that could lead the casual observer to call 9-1-1. It is awe-inspiring. And it is extra beautiful with two drummers pounding the effing bejeezeus out of it, and then, on the no-drums part, both grabbing guitars to add to the feedback, leaping back to their drum kits to finish it all up.

It *had* to be the last song of the main set. It was that great.

And it made me extra happy when I realized that it hadn't been played at last year's Hanukkah run because Ira was coming off a rough illness and played a lot of songs sitting down. Mushroom's intensity was more than could be asked for last year. This version made up for that in spades. Wowzers. A stunning return to physical form.

I have seen a bunch of cool Hanukkah-show encores, involving Ray Davies and David Johansen, among others. But seeing the band get back onstage and, with Todd Barry -- yes, the comedian -- on drums, blast through a Blue Oyster Cult radio hit, well, that was just as ridiculously perfect (nice lead vocal from James on it as well). The show then ended with an understated, intense take on Our Way to Fall with the lead singer of Real Estate helping out on backing vocals. Perfect.

And it was one for the record books. My only regret was that I wasn't able to get tickets for another night. *That''s* how fast these things sell out. I'll be anxiously awaiting the new album and a 2013 tour. What fun.

UPDATE: if you were obsessive like me, and so inclined, you could go here and follow the link to  download the entire show, quite legally with the permission of the band, for free. It's all great, but the main set is downright hypnotically and/or chaotically beautiful from Don't Have to Be So Sad onward. Wow.


  1. I'm assuming this will be your last gig of 2012; if so, what a superb way to round off the year. You lucky thing.

  2. Yeah, sadly it is. I am already regretting not going to see Antibalas last night. But I am still on a soaring buzz from YLT that I hate to disturb. Music is one of the most powerful endorphins.