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Posts Tagged ‘Birchmere’

The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

Got a little lull in concertgoing (there are a couple shows of interest at An Die Musik this weekend, but I’m going to take a break), so it’s time to catch up a bit on the backlog. Last week, Yo La Tengo played at the Birchmere, kind of a weird venue for an indie-rock trio known for making a shitload of delicious guitar feedback noise on top of a steady, almost Krautish pulse. The reason they were playing at this venue — an intimate dinner club whose more usual fare are singer-songwriters, country musicians and aging rockers — was the nature of this tour, dubbed “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo.” The concept was basically that they would play “semi-acoustically,” kicking off with a couple songs and then opening up the rest of the concert to questions and requests.

There aren’t too many bands out there that can pull this off. Ideally, it requires a large and diverse repertoire of songs, the ability to play them acoustically, the ability to play any one of them on cue, a devoted and knowledgeable fan base, and the charisma to be able to sit on stage and answer questions without boring your audience stiff. I’m having a hard time thinking of any other bands that could actually do this, but Yo La Tengo managed to do it and be entertaining throughout. It helps that they’re one of the most endearing bands around, consisting of a married couple (he on guitars, she on drums) and a third-wheel bassist, all of whom have been playing music together for multiple decades (okay, the bassist is the relative “new guy,” having only been in the band for 15 years or so). The vibe these guys give off is one of relaxed confidence, like they’ve been together for so long they can handle pretty much anything the audience throws at them. In particular, guitarist Ira Kaplan was comfortably engaging and funny onstage, appropriate as it’s his guitar pyrotechnics that — for this listener at least — really propel the band to their most exhilirating musical heights.

I waited too long to pen this writeup, as I no longer remember much about the questions that were asked, but the band encouraged people to ask about anything, not just music. Nevertheless, for the most part the questions (mercifully in my opinion) stuck to Yo La Tengo’s music; the most off-topic it got was, “what’s your favorite Simpsons episode and why?” — and even that one became YLT-related since the answer was “well, the one that we did the music for, obviously.”

Musically, Yo La Tengo has a long and impressively diverse discography. I had expected them to stick mostly to the quieter stuff, or at least the poppier stuff. For the first half of the show or so, this was the case; they played a lot of their contemplative, slow-paced material, of which I generally find about half to be beautiful and half forgettable. But they did end up playing some louder stuff. It turned out that by “semi-acoustic,” what they really meant was “electric, but without distortion.” To my surprise and delight, they even played “The Story of Yo La Tango,” which is a 12-minute epic of guitar feedback and distortion over an insistent motorik beat. Kaplan did crank up a tiny bit of distortion on this one, but far less than usual, and the effect was fascinating, more spacious if not quite as compelling as the original.

For the first bit of the show I was kind of wishing the band would stop talking so much and just play more music. But it didn’t take long for me to warm up to them, and it ended up being a really neat experience punctuated by some great music. They didn’t blow my mind like they did last year (when Kaplan beat up on his guitar the way Cecil Taylor beats the shit out of pianos), but it was a pleasant evening and a rare look into the workings of one of the most long-lived bands in the turbulent world of indie-rock.

Cowboy Junkies @ the Birchmere

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Once again, I have a couple shows to report, both at Virginia’s The BirchmereYo La Tengo and Cowboy Junkies (and I’m going back there next Monday to see Robert Fripp). I only have a few minutes right now so I’m going to write about the latter first, as I have a bit more to say about the former.

Cowboy Junkies are an old favorite of mine; I have probably 10 of their albums and always enjoy them when I’m in a quiet mood. They don’t exactly fit in with this website all that much, although one could say that their crossover between old-school country and rock is a reasonably innovative meshing of styles. They boast some excellent musicians, but the heart of the band has always been vocalist Margo Timmins, whose husky, powerful voice is an unmistakable force. I had never seen them in concert before, and they didn’t disappoint, even though I’m not particularly fond of their latest album, At the End of Paths Taken. They played a bunch of stuff from their older albums, including a couple from The Trinity Session, their breakthrough record, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, and a couple from Lay It Down, the 1996 album where I feel they achieved their best marriage of country, rock, and just plain great melodic songwriting.

If I was surprised by anything, it was by how edgy these guys have become. Aside from Timmins’ vocals, Jeff Bird on harmonica and (especially) electric mandolin was absolutely mesmerizing, and he churned out some really great, strident, wonderfully dissonant solos on both instruments. I really didn’t expect them to rock out like that, but Bird was very impressive in that respect. Their closing song was their interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” — on album, this is a stark, almost doomy four-minute interpretation, and live, it was equally stark but stretched out to something closer to 10-15 minutes. This was AWESOME. It was as if the band had suddenly taken a huge dose of Mogwai or GYBE! influnce, or decided to get a bit Krautrocky a la Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” A repetitive, driving bass line underpinned the whole song, while Bird and Mike Timmins on guitar spewed out brief, spiky solos and Margo Timmins mumbled short vocal lines in a resigned, doom-laden fashion. The volume levels were ratcheted up and down with regularity, creating troughs and crescendoes that would make any post-rock band proud. I could hardly believe what I was hearing but this was absolutely great.

I love the Cowboy Junkies for their melodicism, hooks, lyrics, all that good stuff, but I was most impressed by them in concert for their edginess and willingness to experiment and really put on a show instrumentally, especially with that electric mandolin. Quite the pleasant surprise!

Värttinä @ the Birchmere

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Saw Värttinä last night as mentioned in the previous entry. They were at The Birchmere, a nifty club in northern Virginia whose shows always seem to start and end on time (generally 7:30 til 9ish). Unfortunately they’re pricy and rarely get acts that interest me, occupying a classic-rock (which includes some proggy-prog stuff like Rick Wakeman and Carl Palmer’s tours last year), country, and singer-songwriter niche that only occasionally turns up something I want to pay big bucks to see. Värttinä seemed like an odd selection, but though the crowd was small, they absolutely ate it up. I was pretty unaffected though — but I’m not sure why as this was by any measure a pretty good performance.

The band consisted of three absurdly energetic female vocalists backed by a six-piece band (guitar, violin, accordion, bouzouki, bass, drums), all of whom seemed like excellent musicians. It was the vocalists who were the most intriguing for me, though, and the bits when they sung without instrumental backing were actually some of my favorite parts — in many ways the three-part harmonies were a lot more interesting than the relatively straightforward instrumental rock-outs. Also, there was a really long drum solo, which is never a good thing. So anyway, while “Charming Hostess with a Scandinavian-folk backing band” is a decent description, it also overstates how challenging the music is. In other words, this was a pretty standard affair for a Northside band: extremely competent, quite enjoyable, but well short of great. Maybe not worth the $26 I forked out, but it’s been nearly a month since my last live show and it definitely helped scratch that itch.