NEW YORK CITY—Yo La Tengo opened its free Summerstage concert with a song about being back in the “New York groove,” and few bands are more beloved in the city. They’re most famous for playing a club in New Jersey (the now-closed Maxwell’s in Hoboken) but they’re as quintessentially New York as the Velvet Underground (one of their biggest influences).
But not the only influence. Ira Kaplan, guitarist/singer/songwriter, was a rock critic before he got serious about actually playing music, and the group is omnivorous—taking in cues from across the spectrum, avant-garde jazz to garage rock. In some ways, they’re NRBQ without the rockabilly.
Yo La Tengo played free in Central Park 26 years ago, and it was the very first show with bassist James McNew. But Kaplan said he was coming to shows long before that, namechecking Sha Na Na, Poco and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That would have been 1971 and 1972, when the series was the Schaefer Music Festival at Wollman Rink. I went to a number of those shows, too, and saw the same Mahavishnu/Taj Mahal double bill at my high school in ’72.
I love the diversity of that lineup. Usually, fans of Sha Na Na (doowop revivalists) hated Poco (country rock) and Mahavishnu (jazz-rock). I could listen to all three, and maybe that’s why Yo La Tengo is, along with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, my all-time favorite rock group.
Amazingly, I’d never seen them live, and they didn’t disappoint. The band launched right into a VU-influenced “Sister Ray”-type jam with a hypnotic repeated bass line. Georgia Hubley is one of my favorite drummers, and it’s not because she’s flashy. In the pocket, as the jazz guys say.
What followed was the mix apparent on their records from the beginning—intimate songs alternating with rock and avant-noise. Perhaps it’s the same formula as Sonic Youth, but you can like both of them, can’t you?
McNew did something the ramshackle NRBQ would have been proud to call their own: He pointed to the unblinking lighted “Yo La Tengo” sign behind the band and said, “How do you like our light show? Visual presentation is important for a big outdoor show, and I think we nailed that shit.”
The show concluded with another long jam, this one featuring members of opener Ultimate Painting. It went on for 20 to 25 minutes, far past a number of logical stopping points, which is what I love about Yo La Tengo—going too far, turning it up to 11, confounding expectations. The encore, to promote a series of Hannakuh shows at the Bowery Ballroom, featured Kaplan’s mother warbling a charmingly off-key number—played completely straight. How can you not love a band like this?
Ultimate Painting, the English opener, managed to be both chiming and lilting, without also being catchy. Tight but boring. Odd, that. They had a nice sound, but didn’t have the songs to go with it. Zero stage presence, and flubbed one song twice before making it all the way through. “Their tunes weave in and out of each other like the duo’s respective six-strings, spiraling around each other in a laconic dance,” the publicity said. I missed the laconic dance, I guess.
If Ultimate Painting became a Yo La Tengo cover band, though, they’d do great. The problem was that the band’s lyrics didn’t seem to be about anything, or at least they didn’t put them over as if they did. They didn’t feel invested in their own material.
I should mention that the Summerstage sound was fine, the prices for food and drink not outrageous, and the crowd control was handled well. It’s a nice venue, under the trees in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield. Other concerts worth your time are PJ Harvey July 19, Regina Spektor July 27, and the “Bhangra royalty” show August 6.