Monday, September 10, 2012
Indie rock goes gray, to great effect; Mission of Burma and Yo La Tengo in Philly -- a review
I am not sure when it started -- likely somewhere in my mid-forties when I got healthier and my typical bedtime got earlier, and my mornings a little correspondingly early -- but sometimes, not always, I will be on my way to see a band and thinking, "Ugh. I hardly want to bother. Seems like a lot of trouble...." I *never* actually skip the show and stay home, mind you, but the thought crosses my mind, a little more often each year.
So there I was, last Friday night, dragging a bit as I headed out the door to see Mission of Burma -- Boston post-punk legends, and wearers, in my opinion anyway, of the crown that is inscribed "Greatest Reunion in the History of Rock." See, I was a Burma fan in the early '80s. Trouser Press magazine did a review of their classic Vs. album and I got it and was sold. I picked up the EP that had preceded it, and dutifully waited for a tour. And it didn't happen, or I didn't notice it. The band broke up before I ever saw them. Sure, there were some glorious Volcano Suns tours, featuring Burma drummer Peter Prescott, later in the eighties, but the Real McCoy had disappeared.
Or so I thought. Then, back in early 2001 (or was it 2002?), they got back together for supposedly one-off shows in NYC and Boston. And my god, they were amazing. They had lost nothing. In fact, judging by the somewhat sloppy live stuff I had heard from the early days, they were better. Much better.
And they had so much fun that, well, they just sort of kept going and never really broke up again. They are now four albums and a decade or so into a reunion that has been a neverending mindblow of great records and gigs. For my money, The Obliterati is the stone-cold classic of the four newer albums, but every single one is a keeper. The new one -- Unsound -- even heads for shorter, tighter, punkier ground while still retaining that wonderful undulating downright *squiggly* bottom end fueled by the intersection of Prescott's drumming and Clint Conley's bass. And, as always, there are yells and whoops of joy audible on nearly every song. This band's music is, uniquely, dense as all hell -- almost impenetrable on first listen -- and yet infused with a chaotic joy that is palpable.
Friday's gig, at Union Transfer in Philly, was no exception to the simple rule: there is no such thing as a bad Burma show. It was heavy on the recent record, but they took time to hit lots of the rest of the catalog, even playing a handful from The Obliterati, and making sure to leave us pulverized with perfect versions of early songs like "Trem Two," "Red" and "Mica" along with the expected classics like "This is Not a Photograph" and "Academy Fight Song."
They did not disappoint. But one day they actually will stop doing this, so, once again I have vowed never to skip a Burma show, no matter how damn old I get. Because, you know what? They are even older than me and they still are as vital-sounding as ever. Salut, boys. You tore it up.
And then.... came Yo La Tengo. I have told you in painstaking detail my sonic love affair with the music of this amazing little band from Hoboken, and I won't repeat it here. But suffice it to say that the timing of this show was, for me, perfect. I had just read the band's new bio by Jesse Jarnow, had spent hours playing their music after that bio inspired me to go explore parts of their catalog that hadn't necessarily blown me away the first time around, and, by the time I decided to go see Saturday's free YLT show sponsored by WHYY as part of their Connections Festival, I was, well, stoked to put it mildly... as psyched as ever to see them (again).
Good lord, they were great. It was, first of all, one of those gigs where you feel at first like outside forces are conspiring against you. The weather was rainy and awful -- although, thankfully, the predicted thunderstorms stayed away. And the band was late getting onstage because the rain had pushed everyone's set times back a bit at the festival. A few of us wondered, as they took the stage at 9:15 p.m., if the announced end-time of 10 p.m. for the festival would be strictly enforced. If so, it would be a short show. But all those worries went away as soon as they banged and rumbled their way into the faster/louder version of "Big Day Coming."
They were well and truly on fire from the outset. There were the usual instrument switches and near perfect note-sustained segues between songs as those switches took place. They all rotated between guitar and keyboards and drums and bass through "hits" like "Autumn Sweater" and "Here to Fall" as well as through a few new ones off an upcoming album.
And then it got.... completely amazing. And, strangely enough, while my definition of "completely amazing" at a Yo La Tengo show usually revolves around the loud stuff ("Mushroom Cloud of Hiss," anyone?), this particular episode of Yo La Tengo Blows Steve's Mind began with a few quieter ones. First, there was a new one, and then "Black Flowers." I don't recall ever seeing them do that one, in all its Kinks-ish glory, live before, and I was pretty transfixed.
Then they headed into "Nowhere Near," even quieter than the album version because Georgia played keyboards instead of drums. Beautiful, wonderful.... And *then* they turned it up.
There may be better ways to end a show than a quadruple of "Nothing to Hide"/"Decora"/"Tom Courtenay"/"Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," but I wouldn't bet on it. The loud/intense ante was upped on each succeeding song, so by the time they got to "....Hatchet..." it was a 15-minute seething monster of Ira Kaplan's best distortion-ridden lead-guitar work. Wow.
It would have been fine to end it all there. In fact, I kind of expected it. It was a festival. Encores aren't really expected at festivals, and this one was already running late. It was 10:30 at this point. Allegedly, the music was supposed to have ended 30 minutes earlier.
But we cheered, and they returned, and... what? Ira *and* Georgia headed behind the drum kit while James strapped on a guitar and they played "Antmusic." Yes, YLT did an Adam and the Ants cover. God, it was awesome. The show then closed with a couple acoustic ones -- "Griselda" and "Center of Gravity," the latter featuring a drunk birthday boy named Greg. It went something like this:
Ira: "Anyone wanna do like a little maraca thing for us?"
I almost volunteered. Had he said "a drum thing," I would have been onstage in a second, but, instead, a cheer went up from my right, and Ira says, "Oh right. You are the guy with the birthday. All right, come on up."
A few seconds pass while Birthday Boy tries to hoist himself onstage. He is a bit (not a lot, but a bit) intoxicated, and the stage is pretty tall, and there is a moment where he has gotten his head onto the stage, and his ass is sticking into the air and he is struggling, like a toddler trying to get onto a couch for the first time, when Ira quips, "Clearly, this was a great idea."
The place busts up laughing, but the guy makes it onstage. He then introduces himself to the band and Ira tells us his name is Greg. Greg is handed one of those shaker eggs and heads.... for Ira's microphone. Ira dissents, and gives Greg his own microphone, at about navel level so as to make for easy shaker-egging. They begin to play.
Greg is awful. Greg is beyond awful.
The band starts "Center of Gravity" with its groovy little rhythm, and quickly it is evident that Greg is a problem. The song stops and Georgia heads to a snare drum to give Greg some assistance with the beat. James loudly says into a mic something like, "Way to ruin *everything*, Greg!!"
The place busts up laughing again.
But somehow, Greg then gets it. He is in. He is a transformed groovy rhythm monster, so much so that Georgia is able to give up the snare drum and head for the vocal mic.
And it's all great. Greg is grooving. Then he is grooving *and* moving. Then, most of the way through the song, Greg's groove and move overtakes whatever is left of his good sense, and he begins to join in on backing vocals. Mind you, his shaker-egg mic has descended to crotch level, so, rather than raising the mic, Greg is shaker-egging into it while bending over 90 degrees at the waist to add "Ba-da-bah!" backing vocals.
It is ungodly funny. It is also awful. Which is even funnier.
The song ends. Everyone cheers. Greg has had the time of his life and shakes Ira's hand and hugs Georgia. More people laugh.
Greg heads offstage from the direction he came, but not before Georgia stealthily and strategically repossesses her shaker egg by snatching it from Greg's unsuspecting hand.
It was a perfect ending to a perfect show. Thanks, YLT. You never ever disappoint me live.
"Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." Ira throws down:
"Antmusic," with the four-armed drummer:
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