Review: Yo La Tengo

(Above: Yo La Tengo tear into “Sugarcube.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Almost an hour into Yo La Tengo’s show Tuesday night at the Granada Theater, a fan asked how long the band had been together. The choices presented were 12, 13 or 14 years or longer.

Singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan quickly set the record straight: “I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that this is our 26th year of rocking,” he said. “And I know a lot of you are similarly looking forward to your 26th birthday.”

The indie-rock trio from Hoboken, N.J., is not only a case study in longevity, but consistency. Its set exceeded two hours and touched on all facets of the band’s career, from a whisper-soft reading “Speeding Motorcycle,” one of the band’s earliest “hits,” to bright, up-tempo new song “Nothing To Hide.”

The opening number showcased the two facets of Yo La Tengo’s personality. “We’re an American Band,” was not a Grand Funk cover, but a 10-minute, laid-back drone. Kaplan’s sweet falsetto vocals were countered by his sudden guitar spasms, creating something like an abrasive lullaby.

The rest of the night swung between those two poles. A spacey reading of “Little Eyes” drew big cheers. Drummer Georgia Hubley (Kaplan’s wife) took over vocal duties. Kaplan’s guitar had a flat tone and was buried in the mix, making it feel like the song was floating out of a distant radio.
Other early highlights included the jaunty “Mr. Tough,” which had some people dancing. “I’m On My Way,” another new song, featured bass player James McNew on lead vocals and Hubley on acoustic guitar.

The mellow, dreamy soundscape was punctured by the ferocious drums and guitar that introduced a raucous “Sugarcube.” The energy from that number carried into “More Stars From Heaven,” that slowly built in intensity until reaching a blissful crescendo after nearly 10 minutes.

While Yo La Tengo knows how to nurse a mood, the instrumental “I Heard You Looking” was a tour de force. With Hubley and McNew holding down the groove, Kaplan battered and molested his guitar for nearly 20 minutes. Jumping in the air while strumming, and swinging the instrument by its neck, Kaplan did everything he could to coax out new sounds. When his guitar strap broke, Kaplan kept on playing, using the experience to add new texture to his strumming.

After surveying their catalog, the band turned to their influences during the encore sets. A fun garage rock cover of the Small Faces’ “What Cha Gonna Do” and a goofy duet of “It’s OK, I’m Alright” with opening band Times New Viking showed the trio’s sense of humor. While the crowd didn’t get the band’s oft-requested cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” the night closed with another Ra cover.

Nearly two hours after taking the stage, Yo La Tengo surprised everyone by returning for a second encore. After playing a stripped down version of “Big Day Coming,” that found Hubley replacing Kaplan on lead vocals, the trio broke out some doo-wop on Sun Ra’s “Somebody’s In Love.” Although the house wasn’t sold out, it was comforting to know the band could, and would, come back and do this again anytime they wanted.

Setlist: We’re An American Band, All Your Secrets, Periodically Double or Triple, Avalon or Someone Very Similar, Little Eyes, Here To Fall, If It’s True, Mr. Tough, I’m On My Way, Don’t Say, Tom Courtenay, Sugarcube, More Stars Than There Are In Heaven, The Story of Jazz, Nothing To Hide, I Heard You Looking. Encore: It’s OK, I’m Alright (with Times New Viking), Stockholm Syndrome, What Cha Gonna Do (Small Faces cover), Speeding Motorcycle; Big Day Coming (acoustic), Somebody’s In Love (Sun Ra cover).


Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

(Above: The eccentric Lee “Scratch” Perry give a tour of his Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica. Perry produced reggae greats Junior Murvin, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo, U-Roy and many more at Black Ark before it mysteriously burned to the ground.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Halfway through the third song of the night, Lee “Scratch” Perry ordered the band to halt. He wasn’t feeling it from the crowd, and reggae can’t be performed without the proper energy. After admonishing the audience and getting the desired feedback, Perry and his four-piece backing band resumed the number.

The request may have seemed more reasonable had it occurred hours earlier. The hundred or so fans who populated the Beaumont Club Sunday evening had patiently waited through two bands and an overlong DJ set. As the clock tipped toward Monday, they had a right to be tired.

Fortunately, both the crowd and Perry were rejuvenated by the time-out. The 73-year-old reggae legend delivered over an hour of his favorites and four songs by Bob Marley, one of the scores of reggae greats Perry has produced throughout his five-decade career.

Marley’s songs were nearly unrecognizable. Perry didn’t own them as much as deconstruct the numbers, turning them into springboards for his chanted verses and call-and-response choruses. “Kaya,” a number Perry co-wrote and produced with Marley closed the night, while “One Drop,” a number Marley wrote and recorded alone, concluded a trio of interpretations.

With scores of albums to his name, Perry had more than enough original material to draw from. “Roast Fish and Cornbread” came from his heyday in the late ‘70s, while set opening “Secret Laboratory” hailed from a decade later. The playful “Pum Pum” came from last year’s collaboration with “Party Hard” rocker Andrew W.K.

Although Perry’s arrangements are similar, Lionized, the four-piece Maryland band backing him, did a good job of mixing textures and varying tempos. They knew how to push both Perry and the crowd for maximum effect.

Lionized got 40 minutes for themselves before Perry took the stage. They were preceded by local DJ FSTZ, who spun dub, trance and techno for 70 minutes. 77 Jefferson took the stage when the sun was still up with an upbeat 40-minute set.

The diminutive Perry took the stage at 11 p.m. carrying a suitcase and wearing enough bling to make Flavor Flav and Lil Jon blush. Rings decorated every finger and multiple bracelets adorned each wrist. Mirrors and amulets were stuffed into every surface of his cap and spray-painted work boots. More than a dozen charms dangled around the microphone head.

The reggae equivalent of Sun Ra, Perry has claimed to be from outer space at various times throughout his career. He proved it a couple times on Sunday night by dumping a bottle of water over his cap-covered head and right shoe while dancing what looked like the hokey pokey during “Roast Fish and Cornbread.” Later in the set he flicked his lighter and licked it with his tongue.

The small crowd negated any sightline issues – there was more than enough room for everyone on the dance floor. Sound was good, but clarity isn’t Perry’s aim. He mixes everything into a large, murky soup. Although instruments were discernable, his voice wasn’t. Drenched in artificial echo and natural patios it was hard to make out what he was saying.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out what Perry wanted, though. Jah and love, sure, but also lots of dancing and movement. Once Perry threw down the gauntlet, an unspoken agreement was struck: You give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you came for. Although it took longer than either anticipated, both sides ultimately got what they wanted.

Setlist (as written, though not performed in this order): Secret Laboratory, Inspector Gadget, Jungle Safari, Roast Fish and Cornbread, Jah Live, Sun is Shining, One Drop, I Am A Mad Man, Devil Dead, Wait Inna Babylon, Kaya, Pum Pum