Nearly a year ago to the day, the Fox Theater played host to the first big act of the 2010 Noise Pop Festival, which arrived in the form of Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band. The group’s first arrival to the Bay Area was met with wild enthusiasm, and the set itself was a scene of sonic mass hysteria, with the warbles and shrieks of Yoko accompanying the wild swing and over-the-top rock of her backing band. It seems only fitting, therefore, that the following year needed to be kicked off in a similar manner — a night of balls-out rock, groovy jams, and snarling static chaos — which is probably the main reason why the New Jersey indie rock trio Yo La Tengo was invited to the Fox Theater for the first night of the 2011 Noise Pop Festival.
With a career spanning a massive gamut from ambient grooves to distortion-riddled jam excursions, it’s difficult to pick an opening band for Yo La Tengo, so it seemed only fitting that they were the ones to make the choice. Up for the task was Southern California punk trio The Urinals, who shook the walls of the Fox Theater for 45 minutes with their stripped-down, energetic tunes. Despite not being terribly animated onstage, and despite the lack of response from the somewhat-sparse crowd, the band seemed to be having the time of their lives, and churned out each song with effortless precision. The uncompromising rawness of the performance was an excellent way to kick off the night, and served as a great appetizer to the feast of shrieking pandemonium that would be unleashed for the third section of the night.
Yo La Tengo’s onstage arrival was heralded with a jangly, horn-filled cover of the Wheel Of Fortune theme — an appropriate choice, given that the first of the band’s two sets was determined by a spin of their Freewheel, a method of set selection that they have employed since 2007 to add a new degree of variety to each performance. After explaining each of the selections in detail, singer Ira Kaplan invited an eager fan onto the stage to give it a spin, and a set of songs by Dump, the solo moniker of bassist James McNew, was selected by the turn of the wheel. The first half of the night, therefore, was somewhat groovier and more mellow, with McNew taking guitar and crooner duties for each of the eight numbers. The second-to-last song, “Daily Affirmation”, was a slight return to Yo La Tengo form, spiraling into an intricate jam that bellowed on for nearly 10 minutes, before closing the set with the bouncy rocker “Superpowerless”.
It only took the first few notes of “Sugarcube” to bring the crowd back out from the slightly-wary state it had been floating in for the Dump set and back into a bouncing, cheering frenzy. With Kaplan taking over guitar duties and McNew returning to the bass, the second Yo La Tengo set was a return to form, with each song more upbeat and furious than the last, headed by drummer Georgia Hubley’s massive rhythm section and Kaplan’s trademark dissent into a haze of feedback wailing and cacophonous snarling from the epileptic frenzy that he threw through his guitar. Several songs, including “Flying Lesson” and the colossal closing number “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”, extended well past the ten minute mark, with McNew and Hubley maintaining a solid, stoically-precise rhythm while Kaplan threw himself about like a madman, hurling his guitar about, tuning and de-tuning the strings, and even tossing it by the bridge across his amplifiers. Whatever tranquility was present in the first half of the night, it was all but eradicated for the final hour and a half of the trio’s stunning performance.
Yo La Tengo has a reputation for saving the true surprises of their set for the encore, and tonight’s performance was no exception. After cranking out the fan favorite “Autumn Sweater”, Kaplan and McNew invited the Urinals back onto the stage, stating that they were one of the few bands that they have recorded multiple covers of, and knocked out a performance of the Urinals’ piece “Black Hole” with McNew and Urinals singer John Talley-Jones trading vocal duties while Hubley joined drummer Kevin Barrett for an expanded rhythm section. Yo La Tengo was also joined by radio DJ and music aficionado Gaylord Fields for a pair of songs as Condo Fucks, the fictional moniker they had adapted for their 2009 Fuckbook EP, which cranked up the energy a few extra notches as the tunes were practically detonated out of the speakers. To close the night, the trio took the lights down low, and Kaplan hoisted his acoustic guitar one final time for a delicate performance of “Alyda”, and thus, the first night of the 2011 Noise Pop Festival came to an end.
As this was my first Yo La Tengo show, I had very little idea of what to expect, least of all a wheel of fortune for set selection or a large party of guests for the encore, but the entire experience was fantastic. The fierce abrasiveness from Kaplan’s guitar work paired magnificently with both the Urinals’ opening set and the steady bass grooves of James McNew, and the opening Dump set was a nice division between the balls-out opening performance and the utter insanity of the second set. Yo La Tengo seemed to be overjoyed to be back in the East Bay, and kicking off the Noise Pop Festival, and they gave it their all for almost three solid hours; it’s a definite hope that the rest of the festival carries the same enthusiasm for all of the performances that will be taking place in the week to come.
Set 1: Dump
- Basic Cable
- Slow Down
- Hope, Joe
- Secret Blood
- A Plea For Dump
- The Beautiful Ones (Prince cover)
- Daily Affirmation
Set 2: Yo La Tengo
- (Straight Down to the) Bitter End
- Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)
- How To Make A Baby Elephant Float
- Gentle Hour (Snapper cover)
- Periodically Double Or Triple
- Nothing To Hide
- Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind
- Autumn Sweater
- Black Hole (With The Urinals)
- Rolling Stones Rice Krispies Jingle (Brian Jones cover) (As Condo Fucks)
- Dog Meat (Flamin’ Groovies cover) (As Condo Fucks)