Monday 13 June 2011

Yo La Tengo at Royal Festival Hall - 12 June 2011

Yo La Tengo

I’m not really sure why I am here.

I don’t know anything about Yo La Tengo. It’s a Sunday night. This is not my usual habit at all.

This is my second successive evening at the Ray Davies Meltdown. Tonight the great man himself introduces the band. Davies has known them for years and he’s a genuine fan.

Yo La Tengo have been going for nearly a quarter of a century. In that time they have amassed a vast body of work. They are extremely adaptable and have always amused themselves by imposing their own rules and constraints to make the music making process fresh and exciting. They have always relied on their fans to come along for whatever adventure they are currently on. It is a wonderful place for a group of musicians to be in.

On the current tour Yo la Tengo play two sets each evening. The nature of the first of these is determined by a spin of a wheel that is labelled with nine different possible outcomes. These range from a commitment to play a bunch of songs that begin with the letter ‘S’ or songs starting with vowels, to performing a film soundtrack. There is even a possibility that the band will act out an episode of a classic American sitcom in its entirety.

Tonight the wheel is spun and we get... a set by Yo La Tengo’s garage rock alter egos Condo Fucks.

For the next half an hour or so we get a non-stop freewheeling explosion of squalling feedback and guitar mangling. In what will become a theme of the whole night, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew swap instruments and vocal duties throughout.

Condo Fucks are a covers band, but there is little that I recognise. The one track that is instantly familiar to UK audiences is a version of The Troggs’ ‘With A Girl Like You’. It is considerably faster and more scuffed up than the original. I suspect that there may have been a Richard Hell cover in there too.

Kaplan in particular gets into the mood, swinging a guitar around his head and using it to generate swathes of white noise and static. It’s a terrific show.

After a short interval Yo La Tengo re-emerge as themselves. They start with an immensely long, apparently semi improvised piece in which various band members take turns to solo against the backdrop of a metronomic bass riff from McNew. It is very indulgent, but crucially, very impressive.

I don’t know any of this stuff, so I’m rather hampered when it comes to describing the events of the rest of the night. Yo La Tengo’s songs seem to broadly fall within three categories – the long, almost Krautrocky wig-out involving lots of guitar distortion; gentle, sweetly sung almost folky ditties, often with beautiful harmonies; and more straight-forward rock numbers.

Instruments are freely exchanged and there is effectively a fourth member of the band, a roadie who constantly supplies them with guitars.

And whichever type of song is being played I absolutely lap it up. I’m in hog heaven. There is nothing that I like more than listening to something that I have not heard before and then having my socks blown off. Yo La Tengo are simply awesome this evening, and I sit mesmerised.

They end with a delightful little piece called ‘My Little Corner of the World’ which features a fine whistling solo. Marvellous stuff.

I am really, really glad that I saw tonight’s show. I’ve now got around a quarter century of music to catch up on.

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