Thursday 21 March 2013

Yo La Tengo at the Barbican - 20 March 2013

Yo La Tengo pic by Stephanie F Black

The Barbican is a harsh concrete construct in the middle of the City of London.  It’s confusing to negotiate and easy to get lost amongst its many levels.

And yet, onstage is a haven of tranquillity, a little grove of wooden trees, surrounded by monitors swathed in lush foliage. This is the small bower from within which Yo La Tengo will play the first of two sets this evening.

The trio sit comfortably amongst the trees with a dappled sunlight effect playing around them. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew have been together for thirty odd years and have always kept themselves fresh with experimentation. If they want to chill out in an artificial grotto, so be it.

This first set is a quiet, introspective collection of songs. Voices are hushed, Georgia merely brushing a snare drum, James and Ira thrumming semi-acoustically.  It’s extremely relaxing in much the way as fishing from the bank of a slow-moving river – you’re paying attention, but it’s more about enjoying the idyll.

At the intermission I leave the hall and find surprisingly large numbers of unfortunates who have wandered into the Barbican from the cold streets outside, secreted themselves in this out of the way spot and passed out. One in particular has made an heroic attempt to light a cigarette, but has gone unconscious before he can complete the task. The sad fag balances on his lip, the lighter held limply in his hand.

For the second set, the trees have been moved to the rear of the stage behind a large drum kit. The wall of foliage disguising the monitors makes the small area within which the band will operate more forbidding, like a military dug out. This will be the setting for the loud part of the evening.

Yo La Tengo are touring to promote their new album ‘Fade’ and it is characterised by a number of longer motorik-influenced pieces like “Ohm”, which ticks along like a metronome, building in urgency as it progresses.

The band is as comfortable with raw noise as they are with the quieter material of earlier.  Ira swings his guitar wildly round his head and spends five minutes at a time generating feedback solos.

However, it’s never just noise for its own sake. There is always melody and structure here.

Yo La Tengo occupy an almost unique position. There are elements of contemporaries such as Sonic Youth, but this is married to the much more pastoral and tuneful rhythms of Talking Heads or David Byrne. I’m struck by how unisex the audience is – mostly young couples in their thirties and early forties enjoying a civilised night out.

Well, mostly. The stage times have thrown a sizeable minority who roll up at around 08:45 and find that they have missed about an hour and a half.

The band announces that they will play a song in tribute to their being in London. This turns out to be ‘Antmusic’ by Adam and the Ants. Ira and Georgia generate an authentic Burundi drum beat and James bashes through the vocals.  This goes down well with the crowd. Requests for ‘Stand and Deliver’ are rejected.

A number of encores follow, including moving versions of ‘Take Care’ and ‘Our Way to Fall’.

It’s been a lovely evening. I note the increased numbers of sleeping street people on the sofas outside (it’s a veritable colony) and make my way off to my own warm home.*

* After getting lost and schlepping around various levels of the Barbican for about five minutes.

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