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Published: 2003/09/12
by Jesse Jarnow

Yo La Tengo, Southpaw, Brooklyn, NY 9/2

NYC ROLL-TOP: Summer Sun

With little warning, save for the calendar flip into September, autumn
suddenly fell on Brooklyn in the form of three straight days of
just-chilly-enough-to-be-Serious rain. The abrupt atmospheric change, after
a summer of skin-wrapping stickiness, was perfectly suited – oddly enough – to a mid-week Yo La Tengo concert. The trio's recent Summer Sun is an
album's worth of fading light and bittersweet ambience. On the front, the
band stands bundled in winter coats near dead trees below a dead sky. The
album manages to be a major piece of work while remaining steadfastly
low-key. It's as if the music existed in that atmospheric void caused by a
sudden pressure change. Yo La Tengo seemed the perfect medium to articulate
the mood of the city.

It was a pleasant surprise that they were even playing at all — no
announcement on their website, little notice at all, in fact, except for
their name buried at the end of a list of six bands on Southpaw's website
and erased the next day for posterity. The show was a benefit for Alejandro Escovedo, part
of the horribly typical story of an atypical working musician getting sick
(in this case, Hepatitis C) without health insurance. Musically, the evening
pulled a fairly normal sweep of the singer-songwriter spectrum. And there Yo
La Tengo were, snug in the middle, and reverting to a simple acoustic

The music was gentle and understated, unadorned by feedback and relying
mostly on the shy voices of (husband-and-wife team) guitarist Ira Kaplan and
drummer Georgia Hubley. Where some bands' continued draw is due to their
constant improvisation, part of Yo La Tengo's live appeal is their virtually
unlimited repertoire. They call on an encyclopedic grasp of pop music to
present the perfect tune. Their opener was case-in-point example: a lovely
cover of Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "This Diamond Ring" — Gary Lewis (of
course) being the son of French national hero and telethon host Jerry
Lewis, Lewis's annual Labor Day telethon having occurred several days
previous to this particular Yo La Tengo show, this particular Yo La Tengo
show also being a benefit gig.

And if ya missed the reference (I sure did 'til I consulted AllMusic), it
didn't matter — it was still a great tune. Besides "Let's Save Tony
Orlando's House" (a reference to a Troy McClure-hosted telethon on The
Simpsons) and "Tired Hippo," the set was entirely comprised of covers.
Hubley sang a lovely version of Neil Young's "Hey Babe" (off of 1977's
American Stars ‘N Bars), coyly followed by Moby Grape's "Hey
Grandma." Fittingly, the band closed the set with a heartfelt cover of "The
Rain Won't Help You," a number by Escovedo's '80s outfit, the True
Believers. On the latter number, the band's drive sounded like the mid-'60s
work of another group known for playing to the weather: the Grateful Dead.

The textured quietude of Summer Sun suggested that Yo La Tengo were
the perfect music for the rain. This proved true, though in a different,
though equally satisfying, way. The band didn't play a single song off of
Summer Sun, instead finding surprising ways to fit the mood,
effortlessly bridging the weird weather change and the sad awkwardness of
playing for a musician who couldn't be there to hear it. The indie rock
veterans were the cool older siblings who knew exactly what record to put on
and nod along knowingly with.

Jesse Jarnow has been blogging lately.

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