Live: Yo La Tengo/Chris Knox

yolatengo-live2FITZGERALD’S — 9/28/2000: So I saw Yo La Tengo play a lousy, boring show at Fitzgerald’s. God bless ’em, they’re my favorite band on Yaweh’s green earth, and I wanted them to rock me and lull me and pretty much paint intimate musical pictures on the empty air in front of me while I drank $3.00 Lone Stars all night. But they didn’t. Instead, they traveled back in time to re-create their classic, novice sound circa 1987-’89 (if you really want to know, buy President Yo La Tengo and/or Ride the Tiger). They seemed to forget, for this one evening at least, the more refined sonic presentation that has earned them a snugly spot in the CD changers of many a Jetta and Rav-4. And that’s not a good thing.

I now ask you to place your copy of Electr-o-pura — you should have purchased it 5 years ago — in your CD player or deluxe, MP3-enabled thinking cap. Note the first few stuttering seconds of a treated backward drum tentatively joined and then overtaken by Ira Kaplan‘s three guitars, James McNew‘s nice two-note intro and Georgia Hubley‘s swell, sweet voice, ruling all the ladies in her range…those are the opening moments of their finest album; the high point of a nine-LP career, none of which sound a damn thing like the other one. Until recently, they were steadily improving in quality, as well. Their last two albums following the Electro outing, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, feature the band expanding their trademark sound, respectively flirting with eclectic, crafted singles and their more conceptual musings.

Ah, but there was no evidence of that progress anywhere tonight.

And there are good reasons for that. Yo La Tengo is (or was, I guess) touring in support the reflective, electronically-tinged Inside Out. The recording itself is a quiet vocal-centric concept album filled with ballads about long-lived love and sorely-tested relationships. It’s just the sort of thing you expect to see played with brushes and careful guitars. But while they certainly played quietly at times at Fitzgerald’s that night, they didn’t take pains to differentiate the eight or nine new songs they played from their repertoire of noisy pop songs and droning wonders.

yolatengo-live3Numbers are another problem. They are only three, and their records are multitrack worship sessions. Mr. Kaplan and his delay pedal can occasionally create the mild sensation of time travel, but their increasing sophisication is more often than not undone by their having only 6 arms between them. Notwithstanding their long history as a three-piece, they are seemingly aware of their limitations in the live setting. They toured with an extra keyboard player and guitarist on an earlier stint with Lambchop, and they were joined in the States by guitarist Mac McCaughan and in Europe by Robyn Hitchcock. They wasted no such starpower on H-Town.

Instead, they sounded like their old selves, circa 1989. An ambitious garage band, short on technical skills but dead-on in the songwriting department. Charming and watchable, but not what I expect a decade removed from their college radio no-glory days. A highlight was their disco cover “You Can Have It All,” featuring bassist James McNew and guitarist Kaplan in support of Georgia’s lead with doo-wop vocals and choreographed hand movements. They also played “Drug Test” by request, a former-college-radio hit from the afforementioned President album, one of their best — even by the new standards they’ve set for their recordings, it holds up well. Perhaps the original slacker anthem, in the song Kaplan manages to conjure perfect loser angst without once using the word “slacker” or “loser.”

Avoiding the easy one-liner self-deprecation altogether, he sings, “brighter than nothing / smarter than nobody / I wish I was high.” If you ever wasted your day between the headphones laid out next to a bong shaped like the Starship Enterprise, it hits pretty hard. I’ve wished that they would allow a do-over on that one, re-recording it on their larger budget and reaping the benefits of their fine new chops. They actually updated — and improved — a couple of other songs from this era on their matchless cover record, Fakebook, but they haven’t gotten around to “Drug Test”…and this time they were clearly unprepared to play it. They lumbered and labored though all 4 minutes of it. The rest of the set was a similar disappointment, but fulfilled the opposite hope. They played their newer, genius material as though they were a semi-gifted, promising local band that needs ten years of practice.

yolatengo-live4On the other hand, there was Chris Knox, a New Zealander and formerly half of the revered Tall Dwarfs who opened up the show. A few days earlier, I had Napsterized a few of his tracks and was not terribly hopeful, but when he stepped onstage in his tank top, here-and-there mustache, a headset mic and a pair of rubber sandals, the outlook improved. He played a short set, introducing each song and laughing, rifling through a disheveled set of lyrics on a music stand. To end his brief set of catchy, simple pop songs, he called up two volunteers.

A tall, bespectacled guy took over on guitar, and a young lady captured the headset. Knox taught the two of them and the rest of the audience his closing tune and went down to the floor to incite happiness throughout the venue. And he went on for nearly 10 minutes, pushing around in the crowd and smiling madly. The guy playing guitar continued to do so even after a bra landed and remained stranded on the headstock, and his singing companion looked as though she would explode. G, C and D never sounded so good. END

(Photos: James McNew & Georgia Hubley; James McNew & Ira Kaplan; Chris Knox. All photos by Marshall Preddy.)

Live review by . Live review posted Thursday, March 1st, 2001. Filed under Live Reviews.

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