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Yo La Tengo - Koko, London, 15/8/2005

  by Dominic B. Simpson

published: 15 / 9 / 2005

Yo La Tengo - Koko, London, 15/8/2005


American experimental rockers Yo La Tengo's music has always pulled in different directions. Dominic Simpson watches them play an eclectic set to a passionate audience at a rare British show at new venue the London Koko

Koko is a grand venue indeed. Formerly the Camden Palace, it’s been re-done up with a changed name and a fresh paint of red, which belies just how old a place it is. Kind of fitting then that we’re here to see Yo La Tengo, one of rock’s more mature outfits, and one that’s been going for a good 20 years now. Over this time their sound has mutated and matured as it’s been pulled in different directions, incorporating jangly REM-lite folk-rock, country, shoegazing-influenced spacey drone pop, free jazz and electronics, while alternating between blasts of reverb drenched noise-rock and more subdued melodic balladeering. At heart it’s the ghost of the Velvet Underground that can be heard drifting through the band’s lengthy legacy, not just in sound and aesthetic, but also in the very definition of a "cult" act that seems to apply to both acts so thoroughly. First onstage tonight are The Scene Is Now, however, a support act that are long-time friends of Yo La Tengo. Their sound combines familiar Byrds-influenced jangle with the summery feel of Belle & Sebastian, particularly with its adornment of trumpets. The singer,Chris Nelson, for reasons known to himself, has decided to wear a space suit. With the lights dimmed red, Yo La Tengo arrive onstage and Ira Kaplan immediately begins attacking the banks of keyboards on the left of stage, frantically belting out spasms of organ noise as Georgina Hubley signals the frantic repeating beat to 'False Alarm', the Krautrock-driven centre of their 'Electro-Pura' album. It’s an intriguing start to the album, and is discarded with fury, Kaplan anarchically performing elbows-only organ notes, as well as ingeniously playing high up notes with his leg bended over to reach the keyboard. It sounds more like a spasmodic James Chance and the Contortions track than any of the folk artists covered on their 'Fakebook' album, but is followed by some surprisingly subdued numbers from the “And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out' album –'Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House', with it’s nostalgic images of “yellow ribbons” at the “state fair marquee”, and 'The Crying of Lot G', a slow, reflective number detailing the disintegration of a relationship, in which Kaplan posits, “What did I miss here?” while the backing music swirls with a slow jazz beat and echoing vibes. Inevitably, the funeral place doesn’t last, and soon Kaplan is stomping on his distortion pedal for a freak-out run through the heavy 'Styles of the Times', another obscure choice (this time from their EP, 'Today Is The Day'), while there’s some crashing, cascading drums emanating from Hubley. It’s a signal for the set to slide into loud mode, climaxing with an extraordinary version of 'I Heard You Looking', the lengthy instrumental that finishes their “Painful” album. Live, Yo La Tengo take it to a whole new level, with Kaplan freaking out for a full twenty minutes or so on guitar, detuning the instrument and throwing it in the air. An atonal feedback-drenched onslaught under which the rhythm section of Hubley and bassist James McNew provide the only frame of reference, it’s a stunning spectacle that clearly leaves the audience spellbound, and shows just why he’s been dubbed "the Jewish Jimi Hendrix." Providing a moment of live relief from this onslaught, a nervous James McNew steps up to the mike for a crowd favourite - his vocal take on I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’s ‘Stockholm Syndrome’, in which his slightly out-of-tune, reedy vocals dispense the resigned lines “No, don’t warn me / I know it’s wrong / But I swear it won’t take long." Tonight’s set provides a microcosm of the dynamics that have taken place within the band over the last few years, as they oscillate between their heavier noise-pop tendencies and the more reflective, quieter tendencies that have become more apparent in their recent works. Thus, pummelling tracks like 'Deeper Into Movies', with it’s muffled about aliens and messages from outer space, and 'Sugarcube' – which gets a big roar from the audience - are contrasted with the atmospheric 'Don’t Have To Be So Sad”, in which Kaplan plays some beautiful guitar lines across a looped backwards drum machine beat as Hubley and James McNew add some deft keyboard lines. Meanwhile, with Kaplan back on the keyboards, there’s their nod towards their more idiosyncratic influences with their version of cosmologically obsessed free jazz nutter Sun Ra’s 'Nuclear War.' The lengthy jam underpins its lyrical images of atom bombs, fire, and radiation with criss-crossing, call-and-response vocals by all three band members, a prophetic song covered deliberately during a time when Bush’s foreign policy has become so costly, the abrasive line “it’s a motherfucker, don’t you know / when they push that button, you’re ass gotta go” repeated again and again. Inevitably, the crowd ovation calls them back for more than one encore, in which they’re joined by members of The Scene Is Now for a number of covers – a version of Daniel Johnson’s 'Speeding Motorcycle', an instrumental version of The Kinks 'David Watts' (which Kaplan dedicates to “one of the finest British talents”) in which the vocal line is played on the keyboard, keeping the crowd guessing. And there’s a version of 'Let’s Compromise', originally a Scene Is Now song, which sees Chris Nelson run through the audience while Kaplan dismisses a call from a technician off-stage for the band to curtail their set, instead informing the audience that “we’re gonna quiet things down now”. Eschewing the electric all together, instead Kaplan adorns an acoustic while the band run through an intriguing medly of their earlier songs such as 'Alyda' and 'Upside Down.' Even three encores are not enough for sections of the audience, who demand more as the lights go up and there’s a general trudge for the exit. They’ve just seen one of the more unique bands to emerge over the last twenty years or so. And here’s to the next twenty years too, Yo La Tengo.

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Yo La Tengo - Koko, London, 15/8/2005

Yo La Tengo - Koko, London, 15/8/2005

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