While Yo La Tengo’s propensity for bucking convention has traditionally been most apparent in its recorded work, which has spanned the sonic spectrum from noise to country covers to free jazz, recent years have seen the band take its live performances to some unexpected realms. Their Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo tour, for example, found the trio engaging in conversational “storytelling” performances, often at venues off the beaten path from the rock club circuit. Much in the same spirit, the band charged into Southeast Ohio Thursday evening for a set at the historic Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville.
Ever the consummate performers, Yo La Tengo thrived in the 130 year-old space, which sits on the main square in the tiny Ohio town. Starting the evening off with the fittingly quiet and reflective “Green Arrow,” a song from of 1997’s I Can Hear the Hearts Beating As One that features guitarist Ira Kaplan’s deft slide guitar work, the band spent much of the evening focusing on the quieter corners of its considerable catalog. Indeed, even some of the more bombastic moments from its latest record, Popular Songs, were delivered with a sense of restraint that revealed new dimensions to the songs. The slow, locked groove of “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” seemed more deliberate than on the album, widening the song’s grand expansiveness while still highlighting its subtle vocal harmonies. “Here to Fall,” the leadoff track on the new LP, benefitted from a more scaled back approach, successfully trading in the string section from the studio version for more emphasis on the keyboard without losing the tension that drives the piece.
The Opera House’s unique acoustics were best on display when drummer Georgia Hubley moved to the microphone at center stage for the band’s most minimal line-up, with Kaplan and James McNew on guitar accompaniment. This formation was particularly effective on a stripped-down performance of “Tom Courtenay,” which featured Kaplan’s tasteful lead guitar and Hubley’s tender, soft-spoken vocal. The band was also able to showcase its playful side with this line-up, as witnessed when a member of the crowd took the stage for a surprise whistle solo during “My Little Corner of the World.”
No Yo La Tengo set would be complete without the band letting loose, however, and so it came as no surprise when an acoustic segment transitioned abruptly into a fiery run through “Sudden Organ” that bled directly into an equally blistering “Artificial Heart.” From there, the band continued to build momentum before the set culminated in one of its trademark crescendos of guitar loops and feedback that finally brought the mostly subdued crowd to its feet, where it remained for the duration of two subsequent encores. The night ended in memorable fashion with the particularly pungent trio of the Randoms’ “Let’s Get Rid of New York,” crowd favorite “Sugarcube,” and a touching acoustic version of The Scene Is Now’s “Yellow Sarong.”
The Beatdowns, a group of Columbus rock veterans lead by Mark Wyatt (most notably of Great Plains), opened. While the band’s retro-rock stylings might have been more suited for a gritty bar than a venerable opera house, its energetic set was nevertheless a suitable appetizer for Yo La Tengo’s main course.
It always baffles me when a band, who I thought had little footing in the States, rolls into town and sells out the Newport floor-to-rafters in quick succession. From my perspective, and granted that’s a view without even a casual thought about our local “alternative” radio station, the Arctic Monkeys appeared to be tanking with their third and decidedly most difficult album, Humbug. Though it’s increasingly darker and heavier, much to my liking, it was hard to see the appeal. With Alex Turner’s cockney prose and a strong debt to the Jam still in tow, the Arctic Monkey’s aura of Britishness has to be a tough act to feed to American audiences, right? Not on this night. This was one of those rare shows in which I felt a communal intelligence with the crowd around me. The Monkeys have built a short career on taut riffs and loads of clever wordplay and it appeared that, at least in Columbus, they’ve assembled a legion of rabid fans on board with every awkward twist and piece of slang.
Then again, in this cycle, the Monkeys have dumbed it down a bit. With Humbug’s dark, mischievous psych-blues comes a band clad in shaggy hair, vintage Sabbath shirts, leather jackets and shit-kicking boots flailing on a smoke- and strobe-filled stage. They have successfully evolved from skinny lads to rough ’n’ rambling road hogs. That album has been adapted to fit stadiums and drug dens covered in blacklight posters. It was proven in the thick muscular riffs of “Potion Approaching” and “Pretty Visitor” that their thick proper accents could play successfully in Hesher mode. Give guitarist Jamie Cook accolades for dropping in his dripping, wah-wah laced solos during the band’s frequent jams. I thought the discrepancy between this new direction and their older bouncy punk might yet come to a head, but the Monkeys inserted songs like “Brianstorm” and “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor” directly into the heavy mix, making for more manic interpretations of the hits—somehow it all fit. Even when Turner would abandon the guitar to croon one of the band’s competent ballads, the sweeping “Cornerstone” comes to mind, there was enough presence in their sonic wallop to segue comfortably back into the rock show. After a set as powerful and energetic as the one provided by the Arctic Monkeys, the question as to whether or not they are universally adored was erased. It may not have been the fuss they receive when they return to Sheffield, but for a solid hour on this night, Monkey Mania was in the air.