This was my first gig at San Francisco Bathouse since returning to New Zealand last year. I used to think it was a small venue for international bands to play, but found similar bands playing even smaller venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Returning to SF Bath House last night and seeing it crammed was strangely satisfying.
Robert Scott -- he of The Clean and The Bats -- played an acoustic set to open. The most of the songs were short -- sometimes that's a good thing but here it all felt a bit, what's the word, adumbrated? Everyone has a different taste in music, and with people who've been around for years and tried on various musical suits, like Rob Scott and Yo La Tengo, there's bound to be times when you respect the musician, but the music has little effect. This was one of those times.
As for Yo La Tengo, let me first say I haven't heard every record they've ever recorded. I first came across them when they worked with Ray Davies (The Kinks) back in 2000-01. I picked up their best of, Prisoner of Love, a couple of years ago, and own their latest album, Popular Songs. I've also heard a number of their covers in various places (youtube's good for many if you're curious). But I'm by no means a YTL afficionado.
I knew enough to recognise Ira Kaplan and James McNew loitering around the merchandise table during Scott's set, and had to cringe for these veteren rockers as they endured another fanboy telling them how excellent their latest album was. Seriously, the guy stood there for about five minutes, gushing. McNew was nice enough to him, but I saw him check his iPhone several times. At least, I thought to myself, the Kiwi accent provides some variety to what must otherwise be tiresome.
Yo La Tengo - Kaplan, McNew and Georgia Hubley (married to Kaplan) - climbed the stage shortly after ten and played well past midnight (on a school night! Egads!). The set-list ebbed and flowed: there were long songs and snappy one, there were quiet ones and loud ones, covers and originals. The differences -- indeed :the extremes -- are what makes Yo La Tengo an appealing and enduring act. But on this night it was unfortunate that the quiet songs got drowned out by the mass of conversation going on behind me (I was standing about halfway between the stage and the balcony) and the distortion and keyboard bashing often breached the pain threshold (it's rather disconcerting to see a line of people in front of you throw their hands to their ears at the end of what was otherwise a great song). I'm willing to blame the mix and the people behind me for these blemishes; the only obvious musical balls-up was 'If It's True', which Kaplan stopped after ten seconds. They restarted the song and made it all the way thought, but it was about as comfortable as watching Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie. (Though, if I'm honest, 'If It's True' was the song earworming in my head all day at work).
But there were many highlights. 'Here To Fall', 'Periodically Double or Triple' and the epic instrumental ‘And The Glitter Is Gone’ off the new album. The cover of Sun Ra's 'Nuclear War'. And YTL's "cover" of the Condo Fucks’ cover of the Troggs’ 'With A Girl Like You' (the joke being that the Yo La Tengo are the Condo Fucks).
One of the great things about seeing music live is the way it makes favourites out of songs you've heard before, but just liked. I now love 'Black Flowers', and have added it to the list of songs to consider using for important moments in my life (or immediately after). James McNew has a darn good voice, which is another thing I learnt last night. (Other things: Georgia Hubley is a helluva drummer)
'Black Flowers': the highlight of highlights.
The band played two encores, both featuring Robert Scott in some capacity. The second encore came after the lights went on near the stairs, and several people had already left… So there was something a little off at the end. When someone screamed "Play 'Autumn Sweater' for Godsakes", I cringed. YTL is hardly a singles band. 'Autumn Sweater' may be one of their most revered songs, but I don't think anyone has the right to be indignant if it isn't played. But this call set off a rash of other (more polite) pleas for the track from 1997's I can hear the heart beating as one. Kaplan was searching around the stage for something, and had grope for the mic and say, "Alright, just hold on." And so, the final song of the final encore was 'Autumn Sweater', but I'm not sure the band's heart was in it.
Again, I choose not to blame YTL, but the crowd and other circumstances. Perhaps I, too, am becoming a fanboy? A YTL apologist. So be it. They've earnt their status and earned it again last night.
Postscript: I just read a comment here that said there were three encores... anyone care to verify or rebuke?