The Meltdown festival has many virtues, but humility is not generally one of them. By transferring rock music into more rarefied settings, bands have tended to reach outwards. As a result, fans have been treated to unique spectacles, but these have required one to buy into the concept of the rock band as creative artist more than pop-culture entertainer.

Quite a surprise, then, that of all the bands on the bill, it was Yo La Tengo who chose this year’s Meltdown (curated by Ornette Coleman, hardly the populist’s choice) to subvert that notion. Of all the bands on the bill, they would generally be the most likely to have those horrible words ‘art-rock’ tagged before their name.

Tonight, however, they were ‘the freewheeling’ Yo La Tengo’, playing without the usual array of backing musicians, and with just an acoustic guitar, bass and pared down drum set. Those hoping for the usual array of deft instrumentation, or for the freeform guitar workouts would have been disappointed.

Generally this is what has got Yo La Tengo noticed. Sonic Youth as America’s most innovative band? Don’t be silly, Yo La Tengo have always been more tuneful, more varied and make more use of the many opportunities the studio offers.

Yet, there has always been more to Yo La Tengo than experimentation. At the heart of their music, as with all my favourite bands, has always been an easy way around a tune. That has never been more evident than in recent years, with parts of their last album (2006’s “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass”) emphasising their love of pure-pop like never before. That strand to their music made tonight’s performance a rare treat.

The other side to this evening, taking us even further away from the general Meltdown experience, was the ’an audience with…’ style Q&A, more commonly associated with ITV television and has-been comedians.

It worked especially well because we were so close to them. When we took our seats, I was amazed. Not only was I much nearer the front of the crowd than I had expected to be, but I found the band much closer to the crowd as well. Instead of the usual row of barriers, monitors and balding headcase security guards, the band has set themselves up on the very edge of the stage, barely a metre from the front row.

This kind of thing can easily go wrong, and ,to be fair, its highly likely that there were some in the audience that wished for more songs and less talking. But, Ira Kaplin made this work with a neat turn in self deprecating behaviour - and given how stubbornly 'Q' have refused to put Yo La Tengo on their cover, it was nice to learn a bit more about this long-standingly brilliant band.

At either end of the evening, the high points came from the band’s last album. ‘Mr Tough’ was a revelation, the band somehow replicating the song’s easy disco-soul with just an acoustic guitar - taking it a decade earlier and giving it more of a sixties vibe in order to negate the lack of studio craft.

‘Black Flowers’, always one of my favourite Yo La Tengo songs, worked even better. Here, Kaplin replaced the horn parts that formed the centre of the studio version with his backing vocals. It was canny, simple and effective - much like the evening as a whole.

One suspects that when Yo La Tengo return to the UK later in the year, by then with their recently completed new album on general release, the stage barriers and security staff will be back in their place, the lights will have been dimmed and the feedback workouts resumed. And it’ll be great. But those fans lucky enough to be in the audience tonight will enjoy that all the more for knowing just how charming the band can be in closer person.












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Commenting On: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 15/6/2009 - Yo La Tengo








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