Up to now, Yo La Tengo has never played in Sonoma County, which is only surprising when you realize the band was formed all the way back in 1986. Surely, you think, the enduring indie-before-there-was-“indie” band might have played some regular local stop on the college-rock circuit over the years: the Studio KAFE, the River Theater, or Cafe This. But no.
So it was a pretty special thing that Yo La Tengo played not one but two shows today—one at the Last Record Store and one at the Mystic Theatre. The Last Record Store show was such a rarity, in fact, that I talked to an eighth grader whose parents had written a note to the school saying he had a dentist’s appointment so he could get out of class and come see Yo La Tengo.
There’s a famous Onion headline, “37 Record Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster,” and not until you see the band at a record store do you realize the truth inherent in that joke. Before playing, band members flipped through the dollar bins idly, debated among themselves about the packaging on a Bad Brains CD and made jokes about Johnny Winter. They were made for record stores, and vice-versa; the Last Record Store had a fantastic painted window display for the show, and one amazing fan, Steve Ciaffa, donated to the band copies of Yo La Tengo albums he’d personally recorded and manufactured for them… on 8-Track.
The setup for this tour is semi-acoustic, with only a couple drums and minimally electrified guitars. Opening with “Tom Courtenay,” played with delicate dynamics, the band meandered into “Periodically Double or Triple,” which was interrupted by a spontaneous PSA from Ira on wearing a bike helmets. The band meandered through a pretty version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Cry No Tears,” laughed about Jimmy Buffett, made a baby cry by stepping on the distortion pedal, played “Speeding Motorcycle,” beat back repeated requests for “Gates of Steel,” and ultimately ended with “Gates of Steel” anyway—hilariously, after the incessant requester had left!
The sold-out show at the Mystic Theatre later followed the promised “freewheeling” format, with questions taken from the audience. Did you know that Yo La Tengo, for all their sort of lo-fi intellectualism, are a total bunch of funny-ass people? I had no idea. (First Q: “Biggie or Tupac?” A: “Biggie. Sorry—east coast. I’m from Brooklyn, motherfucker!”)
Questions ranged from esoteric technical stuff—the drum sound on their song “Saturday”—to vague inquiries about what they were “into” when they started the band. (“Weed, ceramics, and chips.”) Everyone in the band howled at a question related to Petaluma’s status as the home of competitive arm wrestling, and they even acted out an arm-wrestling contest for their encore. For a complete play-by-play, Andy over at Advantage Sound has the full report on the set, which included their semi-hit “Sugarcube” along with covers of the Monkees, the Beatles, the Gun Club, the Flamin’ Groovies, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground and more.
The fun part, for me, was watching the band suss out thinly veiled song requests. Someone asked “What happens when Night Falls on Hoboken?” and was instantly shot down. Unfortunately, I was dying to hear “We’re an American Band” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and in a valiant attempt to sort of slyly guide the band to that title, I raised my hand and asked what was probably the dumbest question of the night: “Is it ethical to force a newborn baby to listen to Grand Funk Railroad?”
But Yo La Tengo is way too good at this game. They knew what was up immediately. “We’ll get to that song,” Ira said, consolingly. “It involves a lot of tuning and everything, but we’ll get to it.”
Sure enough, the main set ended with “We’re an American Band” (note: not the actual Grand Funk Railroad song), giving Ira an opportunity to reprise one of the greatest on-record guitar freakouts of all time: halfway through the song, he punched the foot pedal, leaned back to his small amp and turned up the knobs, and let loose on four minutes of loud, distorted, mangled bliss.
Yo La Tengo’s so natural at this “freewheeling” thing that after this tour I can’t imagine them going back to playing “regular” shows. Next year, if someone asks them a question mid-set, what are they gonna do—say “shut up”? They’re clearly having a lot of fun with this setup, and it’s a hell of a hoot for the audience too.
If there’s one good thing to come out of Conan O’Brien’s ordeal with NBC, it’s that Max Weinberg is coming to the Mystic Theatre on June 28. He’s playing as the “Max Weinberg Big Band“—a 15-piece jazz ensemble, larger than the Max Weinberg 7 and even larger than the E Street Band—and he aims to recreate the classic era of Gene Krupa, Count Basie, and of course, Tonight Show icon Doc Severinsen. I am having nerdy visions of him walking out on stage to the Conan O’Brien theme song, although a swing version of the intro to “Something In The Night” would do nicely, too. Tickets are $30.
(Note to the Reader: For this installment of City Sound Inertia, we welcome back guest reviewer Bob Meline! A finish carpenter by trade, longtime music fan, and secretly, a solid bass player, he’s also my dad—and one of the greatest guys I know.)
With props to Philly’s Billy Paul, John Hiatt and Sonoma County have a thing going on. The Mystic Theatre is a regular stop on Hiatt’s tour schedule and it’s definitely a two way street when it comes to this thing. Sonoma County loves him—his shows always sell out early, whether he’s performing solo or with his endless array of kick-ass bands—and Hiatt always returns the favor tenfold with nothing less than stellar shows taken from some 30 years of some of the best songwriting ever offered.
Touring in support of his latest release, Same Old Man, Hiatt’s performance Thursday night was counter indicative that the title might be autobiographical. After a few listens through his new offering, the album’s writing isn’t nearly as strong as some of his recent work and the vocals at times seem to be even more rough around the edges that fans are used to. But Hiatt was in prime form at the Mystic, his voice as clear and strong as ever while changing tempos, reworking lyrics, extending solos and exercising his endless array of facial gymnastics—definitely not acting like the same old man.
He opened the set to a thunderous ovation with a strong, determined, version of “Perfectly Good Guitar.” From the onset, he seemed to be a man happy in his own skin, extremely comfortable on stage and genuinely appreciative, if not somewhat surprised, at the raucous support of the Mystic audience. At the conclusion of the song, he spread his arms in his first of many acknowledgments of his band, the Ageless Beauties: “It’s great to be back in Petaluma at the Mystic Theatre“, he drawled, “where much mysticality always takes place.”
The band then went into a trifecta of tunes from the new album, “Old Days,” “On With You” and “Love You Again,” creating a feel that was much more fresh and lively than the studio versions.
The intro to “Cry Love” was the beginning of an amazing night of guitar work from guitarist Doug Lancio, providing a soaring, ethereal, heavenly feel that complimented the tunes’ references to “the tears of an angel.” Lancio, who has worked with the likes of Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, Steve Earle and Todd Snider, is the latest guitarist to work with Hiatt, who seems to have a certain magnet that attracts extremely accomplished but sometimes underrated musicians.
Born in Nashville and introduced by Hiatt as one of the original “thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers from Nashville,” Lancio worked through the evening with an array of electric and acoustic guitars, a dobro and a mandolin, effortlessly providing the perfect feel to Hiatt’s tunes.
The band continued nonstop through a number of Hiatt’s classics, “Walk On,” a hard driving “Master of Disaster,” “Crossing Muddy Waters,” and the always hot and greasy “Drive South,” a terrific character study of two young lovers trying to make it work.
One would not expect a songwriter who recently received the Americana Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting to have the cojones to start a tune with “Well, I’m sitting on the toilet with my sunglasses on / Wondering what you are up to,” but there’s probably no more fitting intro possible to “Ethylene,” a rare gem that Hiatt pulled out of his big ol’ box of songs as a gift to the audience. Hiatt expounded on Ethylene herself after the song, letting everybody know they could find her at a diner in east Tennessee, where they have the best bologna and cheese on white bread sandwiches anywhere—because they slice the bologna fresh right in front of you. And with a can of Diet-Rite cola and a bag of peanuts for dessert (dropped into the can, of course), well, there you are. It was a nice peek into the window of Hiatt’s oft-times offbeat songwriting brain.
The Ageless Beauties expertly transformed the classic “Memphis in the Meantime” from a catchy country rock feel to a full-bore rock and roll number. The two other Beauties, bassist Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Kenny Blevins, provided a solid rhythm section, albeit at times Blevins’ drums seemed to be a bit loud for some of the softer songs. O’Hearn filled the bottom end working from standup, acoustic and electric bass.
Hiatt rounded out the evening touching all the bases—the crowd pleasing “Tennessee Plates” (introduced as “a song about grand theft auto“), “Paper Thin,” “Slow Turning” (with a modified monologue and homage paid to the younger vote: “It’s their time now”), “Feels Like Rain,” and an extended “Ridin’ With the King,” giving Lancio the front and center one more time.
The band encored with—what else?—“Thing Called Love,” wherein Hiatt again gave Bonnie Raitt her due for both her having made the song as popular as it is and, as a very nice side benefit, having helped to put a couple of his kids through college. A keyboardless “Have a Little Faith in Me” closed the show.
Throughout the night, Hiatt was as appreciative of his audience as they were of him. During his encore, he thanked the audience again for coming, noting that it was especially appreciated “during these hard economic times.” And with the trademark ear-to-ear Hiatt grin, he promised that he’d be doing this as long as he was able—even if, he joked to the crowd, it reached the point where he’d have to arrive onstage on a motorized mobility scooter.
It looks like this “thing” may be going on for a long time.
— Robert Meline
I guess the best way to describe Nellie McKay’s show last night is this: in one minute, she pounded the hell out of her keyboard and screamed into the microphone, “Die, motherfucker, die!!” And in the next minute, she picked up a tiny ukelele and sang a beautiful, you-can-hear-a-pin-drop version of the jazz standard, “If I Had You.”
To a half-full house, Nellie McKay thrilled the Mystic Theater with a firestorm show of original songs from all ends of the spectrum, proving herself yet again as one of the craziest and talented songwriters around today. But it was McKay’s selection of cover songs that offset her quirky material in perfect fashion. “Feed the Birds,” from Mary Poppins, was sung in an amazingly authentic old-British-lady voice, along with “I Love to Laugh,” from the same soundtrack.
After her own topical songs about gay marriage, animal rights and feminism, McKay turned to the crowd and announced, “Here’s a song about illegal immigration!”
The song? “Don’t Fence Me In.”
In a similar sly maneuver, McKay performed the old Ella Fitzgerald tune “Vote for Mr. Rhythm,” with the lines: “Vote for Mr. Rhythm / Let freedom ring / Then we’ll all be singing / Of thee I swing.” This led into a mild he’ll-have-to-do endorsement of Obama—which then mutated into a ferociously passionate endorsement of Ralph Nader (??!). McKay even gyrated with mock lust when she described talking to Nader on the phone, and went on and on about how he’s full of great ideas, and sort of, like, failed to mention his overshadowing legacy to this country of viciously crippling the Democratic Party in the most important election ever. “Oh. Hey!” McKay exclaimed, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Does anyone here have chipmunks?”
As those who’ve seen her before can attest, McKay is plainly talented. . . and firmly sardonic about it. At one point, the crowd began hooting at a particularly flashy piano solo. “Oh, I’m just faking it!” McKay protested, and then went into a series of famous piano quotes—“Für Elise,” “Take the A Train”—to demonstrate? To refute? Who can tell?
Dressed in a red tasseled flapper dress and playing a Roland keyboard, McKay also told the crowd a long story—in a zombie voice, no less—about her grandma who used to drive up from the armpit of the Bay Area known as Milpitas after it took that title from Pacifica to come to Petaluma to sell Tupperware to ladies in Petaluma and she’d drive her Ford Galaxie which ran so smooth you could balance a dime on the hood and it was the same car her mom would drive years later when she was on acid and it was a great car but the terrible thing is that when her grandma left the ladies from Petaluma said they’d send her the money for the Tupperware but then they never did.
McKay’s own material, like set opener “Ding Dong” and encore “Clonie,” was brilliant as always. “Mother of Pearl,” with its 5,000 tongues in cheek about feminists not having a sense of humor, brought the house down, and “Work Song” turned into a three-part audience sing-along at the end. Nice also to hear “I Wanna Get Married,” previously discussed as a possible Gertrude Niesen tribute, and probably my favorite Nellie McKay song of all time, “Manhattan Avenue.”
Nellie McKay plays this Saturday at the Outside Lands Fetsival; be sure to haul ass from the Lupe Fiasco stage to catch her set.
Vic Ruggiero, what a guy.
“Hey, howya likin’ the movie so far? Ya know those movies, right, where they got the guy who keeps talkin’ about stuff, an’ it goes on an’ on, an’ then you figure out there’s no plot or thread? You ever seen those movies? Like those Woody Allen movies, y’know, ‘So I was waitin’ for the bus. . ‘ An’ he keeps on talkin’ and talkin’ without makin’ no sense. Or like, whaddya call it, the French New Wave? Where there’s just a bunch of stuff an’ we’re supposed t’think it’s art?”
“Is this like that? Is this art, what we’re doin’ up here?”
The Slackers are a great band who know six zillion songs, and therefore, if you go see ‘em, they’ll play 12 songs you don’t know until they finally play one song you love. It’s worth the wait, and Ruggiero’s string of deep-Bronx nonsequitur banter is hilarious.
“Nice t’ be playin’ some of those tough-guy songs, y’know. For a long time everyone was out to kick our ass for bein’ the best band in New York. We were always playin’ Nightingale’s. ‘Member that place? Held about 25 people. It bred only the best! Blues Traveler. Spin Doctors. Tha’s why people were wantin’ to kick our ass, t’make sure of no more Blues Traveler!”
The show was fantastic. Everyone in the place was dancing. Only half-full, though, which is really too bad—I can think of two dozen people off the top of my head who would have loved it. Don’t miss ‘em next time they come around.