NEW YORK -- When Yo La Tengo took the stage to a packed house on a rainy
Saturday night in Greenwich Village, lead singer Ira Kaplan remarked, "This
place is beginning to feel like home."
Actually, home for Yo La Tengo is not far from this place.
Outside the Westbeth Theater, through the mist above the Hudson River, one could
see the old warehouses of Hoboken, N.J., where the band got their start in the
burgeoning '80s Hoboken indie-rock scene and where they continue to
But as word spreads of this band of alternative misfits, so apparently have the
borders of its hometown.
The Westbeth itself, a subsidized arts complex in the West Village, replete with
cheap artist lofts, a gallery and cafe, was the perfect place for Yo La Tengo to
showcase their sophisticated but emotive rock 'n' roll prowess last weekend.
More like a jazz band than a rock outfit, the influential indie-rockers held
down the fort at the Westbeth for a four-show Halloween weekend stand.
At the Saturday night show and the Sunday all-ages matinee, Kaplan, along with
drummer and wife Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew, showed how he was able
to move from ecstatic feedback workouts, to exquisitely crafted pop songs, to
hypnotic drone-rock instrumentals with ease. The faithful 400-odd fans who
packed the Westbeth's small black box of a theater responded accordingly.
They listened quietly during the softer numbers, and stage dived during the
Saturday night began with a small crowd--including an attentive Kaplan
and Hubley--gathering around former-Holy Modal Rounder Peter Stampfel as
the gray-haired, bespectacled folksinger sang his quirky tunes such as
"Mother, Your Grandson's a Monster." As the opening act, Stampfel missed chords,
forgot words and almost fell off his stool at one point, but, like some
folksier version of Jonathan Richman, he won over the audience with
his endearing personality.
Afterwards, Stampfel, with former db's-drummer Will Rigby and his band The
Unmentionables, plus former Yo La Tengo guitarist Dave Schramm, played a set of
rockabilly-meets-folk-rock. An ongoing joke developed in which audience members
kept asking what the name of the band was, and Rigby, laughing, responded, "The
Yo La Tengo, after setting up their own equipment (always the sign of a
true indie-rock band), took the stage and broke into their version of
the Beach Boy's "Little Honda."
For the rest of their two-hour set, they moved between the rowdier songs from
their new album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (Matador), such as
"Sugarcube" and "Deeper Into Movies" and more mellow numbers, such as the
instrumental "Green Arrow." Like some artsy Eddie Van Halen, Ira Kaplan
extracted dissonant feedback cries from his guitar on the loud songs, lunging
at Hubley and McNew with each guitar wail.
Hubley held down the beat like a modern-day Maureen Tucker, with Will Rigby
joining in at times on a spare snare drum. Meanwhile, McNew plucked melodic bass
lines. The band graciously brought out Dave Schramm to play a set of older and
quieter material. Then, on "Autumn Sweater," Kaplan moved over to the "new wave"
organ and Hubley played a funky beat after a sampled '50s aerobics instructor
voice announced, "Let's see what you can do girl!"
She can do a lot, as can Kaplan and McNew; all of whom drew from almost every
dimension of rock music to come up with their distinctive Yo La Tengo sound.
Moving, without so much as a slip, from an Adam Ant cover in their encore to
Jonathan Richman's "Rockin' and the Government Center" proved this point
As befits a Sunday afternoon, particularly a rainy one, Yo La Tengo's
matinee performance was a more relaxed affair, but nonetheless meaningful.
Moody baritone Stephen Merrit and his Magnetic Fields opened with their somber,
graceful ballads. Kaplan, Hubley and McNew also offered a mellow set, but were
not afraid to turn up the volume on some dark, instrumental numbers.
With Hubley slamming on her tom-toms with timpani mallets, and Kaplan slapping
his guitar and almost tossing it over his body, it was clear that Yo La Tengo
had recovered from any hangovers after the previous night. McNew sang an
unforgettable version of his new song, "Stockholm Syndrome," and the band shook
maracas and played the clave on Hubley and Kaplan's beautiful duet, "Center of
Finishing with a cover of Blondie's "Dreaming," Yo La Tengo left the stage to
the all-ages crowd's cheers. After the house lights came up in the small room,
they returned to unplug their equipment, talk with fans, laugh and enjoy the
artsy little corner of the world that, for one weekend at least, they had made
their homes. [Thur., Nov. 6, 1997, 9 a.m. PST]