Yo La Tengo are playing Central Park Summerstage on Oct 1 at around 8:30 PM. In a normal world, that’s cause for celebration, if you’re a fan of crazed, noisy psychedelic guitar jams, or the quieter, more reflective post-Velvets sound the band have turned more and more to since the turn of the century.
But this year this city’s creepy, homicidal mayor has thrust us into the New Abnormal, where proof of a lethal injection is required for entry. So that means we have to listen from outside. It’s not such a big deal: if you’ve seen any number of shows here, chances are there was probably some instance where you didn’t get to the arena early enough to get in. Obviously, it would be fun to be able to watch Ira Kaplan’s guitar-torturing, but there’s still plenty of room on the slope out back, the sound carries well, and if you want you can catch a glimpse of the band from the sidewalk on the east side near the entrance. This blog was there for Patti Smith last weekend and while it would have been more fun to be able to hear what she said to the audience, the songs came through loud and clear.
The last time Yo La Tengo played the park, it was on a muggy Monday night in July of 2017. Kaplan sized up the capacity crowd and reflected with just the hint of contempt about free concerts he’d attended here as a kid: “Sha Na Na. Pure Prairie League. Mahavishnu Orchestra.” And then launched into a sarcastic bit of the Ace Frehley novelty hit New York Groove.
That didn’t last long. The show was a characteristic mix of paint-peeling squall over hypnotic, practically mantra-like vamps, and spare, reflective, airy songs that matched the hazy atmosphere. Kaplan’s antics are a little more subdued than they were back in the 90s, but there were plenty of beautifully ugly interludes where he’d go to his knees, shaking and bending at the neck of his guitar, sticking it into his amp or just leaving it to feed there. There was at least one point where he left the guitar feeding and then picked up another, and then resumed the song. Meanwhile, drummer Georgia Hubley kept a supple, swinging beat while James McNew played his simple, catchy, endlessly circling bass riffs for minutes on end without once falling back on a loop pedal.
The steady, hypnotic storm began with Pass the Hatchet and continued with From a Motel 6. Kaplan reminded what a purist, catchy pop tunesmith he can be with a relatively undisturbed. loping version of All Your Secrets. Then he switched to keys for a Stereolab-ish take of Autumn Sweater. Did McNew switch to guitar on that one? All these years later, it’s impossible to remember all the details.
The quiet part of the show went on for what seemed like more than half an hour, with the wistful Nowhere Near and then Black Flowers, which Hubley sang from behind the keyboard. Almost mercifully, Kaplan brought the energy up slowly with I’ll Be Around, which sounded like the Stones’ Moonlight Mile on crank.
Hubley and McNew harmonized on Before We Run, then the trio buzzed and burned through Sugarcube, the closest thing to Sonic Youth in the set. After that, they took their time raising Ohm from a drony nocturne into a feral feedback fest. They closed with I Heard You Looking, Kaplan’s sparks and sputters and firestorm of raw noise going on for more than twenty minutes, the two guitarists from the awful opening act invited up but obviously in awe and not adding much to the jam.
The game plan for this blog that night was to get a field recording and use that as a reference. Sadly, the recorder, which was literally being held together with rubberbands, picked that evening to flatline. And after standing through an interminable opening set and then Yo La Tengo, this blog’s owner assumed the show was over and left.
Other blogs mention an encore and a jokey appearance on the mic by Kaplan’s mom. Don’t discount those kind of shenanigans, if the PA is really loud on the first.