by Peter Brizick
On December 2, 1984, two young bands entered what we know as the hallowed-halls of Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. One band, Antietam, a powerful trio led by a female guitar player, was scheduled to play their second gig. Another band, Yo La Tengo, a trio featuring an equally talented woman, was to make their first official performance. Thirty years and four days later, at The Tracodero in Philadelphia, the two bands were together again for a well-deserved celebration and to support YLT’s release of their 30th anniversary album – Extra Painful. It would be cool to report that I had attended both shows – but I was only ten years old in 1984 and busy listening to Van Halen, Springsteen and Prince. However, I am now forty years of age and had the good-fortune of being at The Troc for the show on Saturday evening.
Antietam emerged from the backstage-cave at 8pm with what seemed like the energy and purpose of an army hell-bent on providing shock and awe. The trio consisting of Tara Key (guitar/vocals), Tom Harris (bass/vocals) and Josh Madell (drums/vocals) pumped a sound that resonated like an armored tank brigade. Key’s guitar playing was two-tons heavy and filled the 1200-person capacity theater with power-chords, melodies and solos that would make any teen-aged and male-gender guitarist shake with envy. In a press-release a few years ago, Harris said this of Key’s playing: “Tara asks that you dig a little deeper to discover something for yourself in a way that I can only describe as female. Oh, she is fierce alright…she doesn’t play gently into the night like an old-school woman player…” I would agree with that assessment.
Harris and Madell were locked-in from the very beginning of the invasion, providing solid support to the raging guitar licks and a driving tempo that warmed-up the crowd, the sound-system, and the atmosphere on a cold, dreary Saturday evening in Philly. This should be no surprise considering that this incarnation of Antietam has been together since 1991.
A highlight of Antietam’s audio-assault was a newer song called “Right Between Your Eyes” and that’s exactly how it felt to experience their brand of hard-rock. The remainder of the material was taken from their catalog of eight studio albums, the most recent being Tenth Life which was released in 2011 on Carrot Top Records.
Prior to the show, I stood in line waiting for the Troc’s doors to open and their security-staff to frisk me and review my credentials. It was on this line where I met Pete and Jeff, two gentlemen who have been following Yo La Tengo for over twenty years. They shared stories about shows, Hannukah parties, albums, and YLT’s connection with Sun Ra Arkestra. A few others chimed-in with their own recollections of the same sort. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this is what the evening was all about. This is why they released, on December 2nd, the double CD/double LP, Extra Painful.
In an interview I conducted with James McNew, YLT’s multi-talented bass player, posted here last week, McNew shared “Our long-term fans have stuck with us because we have stuck to who we are and what we do. New followers seem to just find us and appreciate that we always approach what we do on our terms.” In listening to the stories and memories as told by their fans while waiting in line, it was evident that they really do appreciate YLT’s snubbing of musical convention, stylistic fads, and “well-researched” industry wisdom.
These sentiments are apparently shared by the young and young-at-heart alike. Pete and Jeff, who climbed the steps to the balcony area, were roughly in their mid-fifties and early-sixties, respectively. I made my way to the front area of the stage where I was met by a group of teenagers, dancing away and enjoying the benefits of an all-ages show. Every demographic-group was represented by the crowd of roughly eight-hundred by my guess. They were treated to a show worthy of their stories, memories and devotion.
Yo La Tengo: Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew celebrated on stage, opening with an interesting arrangement featuring drums and two electric guitars; no bass and no keyboards. For anyone attending a YLT show for the first time, the raging guitar and histrionics by Kaplan would lead one to believe that they were in for an all-nighter of heavy indie-punk. That conclusion would quickly become corrected.
Over the course of the show, the trio traded instruments, shared vocal duties, featured psychedelic-style keyboard parts and additional percussion pieces. They unwaveringly navigated the oceans of punk, pop, folk, jazz, blues, classic-rock, and other material I would classify simply as art-music. Imagine that – the words “art” and “music” as ingredients in the same definition assigned to material that would probably prefer to be left undefined. In a rather touching moment, the band performed a couple of pieces from 2009’s Popular Songs which were dedicated to the great jazz-composer, Richard Evans, who had written string arrangements for the album. Evans had responded to the band’s out-of-the-blue efforts to incorporate his style into a few songs and he accepted to opportunity.
For Yo La Tengo and their fans, the night was an absolute success. Old friends bumped into each other. Some, like me, made new friends. Old material was re-born and new arrangements tasted vintage like fine, aged wine. Stories, pictures, and memories were shared. Mr. Keating, as played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, would say – “Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?”
Very nice job of describing what Yo La Tengo are all about.