Yo La Tengo
New Zealand Festival
Opera House | March 15
Midway through his first set, laconic Yo La Tengo frontman Ira Kaplan noted that “our band’s been playing for 30 years, and it’s our second night in a row playing an opera house. I think we might have finally made it.” While on paper the Opera House was an unlikely location for a rock gig, the America trio’s opening set was perfectly judged to its gorgeous surroundings, with not just the audience but Kaplan seated while they played a light, largely acoustic set focused on numbers from their newest album, Fade. Georgia Hubley is often referred to as the drummer, but despite being seated behind a stripped-down set, she was just as likely to take a lead vocal or pick up a guitar. Similarly, ostensible bassist James McNew often manned guitars and took lead vocals—on a Snapper cover [“Gentle Hour”], no less—demonstrating a deeper knowledge of New Zealand music than most visiting musicians.
While set opener ‘Ohm’ and ‘I’ll Be Around’ were highlights that proved their newest material was as worthy of our attention as anything they’d done, the band didn’t entirely neglect its past, adapting older songs such as ‘Decora’ and ‘Big Day Coming’ (dedicated to Chris Knox) into this intimate setting effortlessly. The clever structural gambit gave each song room to breathe, and allowed Kaplan’s increasingly heartfelt lyrics to come to the fore, most prominently for me on ‘The Point Of It’, a thoughtful song about the challenges and rewards of aging. If you left at the intermission, you could be forgiven for believing you had seen a band characterised by its quiet grace, its hypnotic beauty, and delicate charm.
This, of course, couldn’t be more wrong: characterising Yo La Tengo at all is a mug’s game, as their video for ‘Ohm’ intimates. After a brief intermission, with Ethiopian jazz and the Minutemen’s cover of Steely Dan’s ‘Dr. Wu’ preparing us for something different, Yo La Tengo returned to the stage and promptly summoned a squall of noisy pop, with three songs in a row featuring Ira’s oft-lengthy guitar solos, fiery exorcisms over the band’s Neu-like repetition of a groove. Some of the older members of the crowd, clearly unprepared, became visibly displeased, whilst others, like myself, longed for a standing venue to fully delight in the visceral power of Yo La Tengo’s fiery side.
A brief detour into some quiet hits, such as ‘Tears Are In Your Eyes and ‘Autumn Sweater’, provided both fan service and a respite for the overwhelmed, but this was only a way-station. ‘Before We Run’ provided a smooth transition into a toweringly noisy final run, featuring the Fall-esque deep cut ‘Shaker’, the thorny pop bliss of ‘Sugarcube’ and a giant epiphanic revisit of ‘Ohm’, before culminating in the massively long, gorgeously noisy closer of Electr-o-Pura, ‘Blue Line Swinger’. It was easily the best Yo La Tengo show I’d seen (even though one or two hecklers and early departures indicated otherwise), marred only by the seated setting. It took all my power to stay seated. One enterprising grey-bearded man took it upon himself in the back half of ‘Blue Line Swinger’ to storm the front of the stage and dance to the glorious noise, acting as a surrogate for the rest of us. I was proud to shake his hand afterwards.
An encore was inevitable, which meant the usual (for Yo La Tengo) collection of unlikely covers. ‘Antmusic’ got an energetic and transformational workout, though I was too perplexed by James McNew’s ironic introduction of it as a Flying Nun song to identify it at the time. ‘Yellow Sarong’ by The Scene Is Now was featured in honor of the singer’s birthday, and brought smiles as their roadie was drafted to play drums with the song. My shout for ‘Tom Courtenay’ was rewarded—a hugely gratifying moment—and the encore closed with another crowd request, Painful’s ‘Nowhere Near’, a lullaby featuring noisy guitar moments that perfectly (if coincidentally) synthesised the two halves of the show, and left us with these words: “All I know is when you smile, I believe in everything.” For those who lasted almost three hours through the entire set, there were smiles aplenty, and the firm belief that, thirty years into their career, Yo La Tengo are just as vital as ever.
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New Zealand Festival
James Cabaret | March 14
Colombian instrumental quartet Frente Cumbiero have one aim: to play cumbia, a traditional Latin American style “…which has been around for 150-200 years, but with a modern take on it,” informed bandleader Mario Galeano at the outset of their New Zealand Festival gig. And without further ado, the four men of Frente Cumbiero got down to the serious business of preaching the revisionist cumbia gospel. Very serious business, judging from their expressions: it took four songs for anyone on stage to break a smile.
The rest of the room was well ahead of them. While the crowd at James Cabaret was nowhere near capacity, this gave everyone a decent amount of floor space to shake to the band’s rhythms, powered by their excellent drummer, Pedro Ojeda, who owned his unusual setup of a conventional drum kit, timbales, and cowbells with personal authority. Even being yoked to playing along to samples, his playing retained a powerful liquidity, consistently shifting his voicing of rhythms to create the impression of a much larger percussion section. Wind player Marco Fajardo particularly shined on some of his more explosive sax solos, perfectly judged to show off the limits of his formidable skill without breaking up the dance floor. Guitarist Eblis Álvarez eschewed strummed chords, instead playing lines often mimicking the wind parts, through so much processing as to sonically resemble another wind instrument than a guitar. And Galeano held court, manning the samples, organ, and providing interlocution between songs, making sure we knew where each song’s origins derived from, and that there was more to Latin American music than salsa.
If there’s a slight academic air to their countenance, their blending of cumbia with other styles (dub and Ethiopian music were name-checked from the stage, while the clarinet brought to mind klezmer), and their compositional rigidity, it’s more than offset by the intrinsic danceability of the genre in which they’re working, the warmness of their sound, their consistent commitment to upbeat tempos, and the fluidity of their playing. By halfway through, the references to other music had receded, as it became clear that they owned their sound. And by the time they played their encore and took a bow, even all four members of Frente Cumbiero couldn’t help but smile.