Yo La Tengo & Stephen Malkmus, Battery Park, – 7/4
NYC ROLL-TOP: Big Day Right Here
A free Fourth of July gig at Battery Park, overlooking the Statue of Liberty from Manhattan’s southern tip, is a responsibility. While Independence Day rarely has anything to do with politics (or Independence), it has evolved its own meaning as a holiday, as separate from politics as Christmas is from religion, but still an important excuse to gather and eat large quantities of meat. Not that there’s a moral obligation to be patriotic as such, just that bands have to understand that they’ll be playing to people who might not have paid to see them, if given the option. With equally iconic indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo and former Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus on board, Battery Park seemed like the place to be for the tribe of post-grad 20somethings scattered across the Boroughs.
As hipsters spread their blankets in the dusty dirt, kicked off their flip-flops, and baked in the scorching summer sun, country-folk upcomer (and WFMU DJ) Laura Cantrell took to the stage. With a three-guitar army — including former YLT guitarist Dave Schramm — Cantrell’s music seemed more connected to contemporary folk than her recent Matador signing suggests, though her music — including the lovely "Maddox Road" — was pleasant, if unremarkable. By the time Malkmus and the Jicks came on, the sun had sunk behind a grove of trees, casting shade and gloriously idyllic yellow-green light on the park for the remainder of the afternoon
There was a languidly herky-jerky logic to Malkmus’s set, with casualness to his approach that could be misconstrued as slothfulness. As songs clattered to their ends, Malkmus lazily spun riffs that might be the beginning of the next tune or could just be another section of the same. He abandoned one song because he wasn’t feeling it. Playing songs from each of Malkmus’s three post-Pavement albums, the Jicks shuffled loosely behind their leader, stretching out on tunes’ endings, including an extended one-chord jam on Face the Truth’s ‘No More Shoes’ (replete with synth sitar).
It is almost always an occasion when Yo La Tengo plays, their most recent area appearances including a set of movie scores to underwater documentaries at Lincoln Center, a benefit for downtown jazz-box Tonic featuring cello and baby grand piano, and eight nights of 20th birthday parties (also benefits) at their native Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Their Battery Park gig was no exception, and they played with an assured maturity that was fitting for the gig. Opening with their "We’re An American Band," a typically melancholy slow-burner from 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, they quickly followed with a cloud-pleasing tear through Grand Funk Railroad’s sliiiiiiightly more famous song of the same name.
Following a trio of seasonally themed songs — "Stockholm Syndrome" ("summer’s what you make it…"), "Tears Are In Your Eyes" ("you tell me summer’s here…"), and "The Summer" (er…) — the group moved onto the "hits" (or, at least a bunch of numbers featured on their recent Prisoners of Love compilation), including ‘Autumn Sweater,’ ‘Cherry Chapstick,’ and ‘Tom Courtenay.’ But the setlist hardly reveals the dramatic topography of the performance. For starters, the trio was able to hold the crowd equally with whispering beauties like ‘Tears Are In Your Eyes’ and ‘The Summer’ as distorting squallers like ‘Cherry Chapstick’ and ‘Big Day Coming’ (and alternated happily between the two).
For another, there was the instrument switching, which added both a visual hook and sonic variety. With rehearsed studiousness, the band held out transitions between songs so musicians could move elsewhere on stage: Georgia Hubley to guitar, James McNew to drums (Ira Kaplan remaining on guitar) for (the really loud) "Cherry Chapstick," followed immediately by McNew to a single snare, Hubley to drums, and Kaplan to organ for (the really quiet) "Autumn Sweater." Whenever they returned to their "normal" instruments (Kaplan on guitar, Hubley on drums, McNew on bass), there was a sonic resolution that was most pleasing. It all sounds very confusing written down, but it was a choreography that had a real effect on the show. Add to that the fact that "Autumn Sweater" and "Cherry Chapstick" are impeccably constructed, nearly unquestioned templates for contemporary indie heartache, and you’ve got Yo La Tengo.
During their encore, they flexed their record dork chops, first reppin’ post-Smile Beach Boys with Wild Honey’s ‘How She Boogalooed It,’ before sending the kids to see the fireworks with the unpredictable (but instantly recognizable) choice of The Ramones’ ‘Sheena Is A Punk Rocker.’ It wasn’t Yo La Tengo’s day to make a statement, artistic or otherwise, and they didn’t. They came to be a great reason to go to the park with your friends. And they were.