This is Yo La Tengo’s second appearance at the Southbank Centre’s Meltdown festival. The first came in 1998, when the New Jersey trio were invited to take part by that year’s curator John Peel. Now they’re back at the behest of The Kinks‘ leader Ray Davies. At first glance it’s an odd fit: Yo La Tengo are, in many ways, quintessential US indie “lifers”: signed to Matador, neither in nor out of fashion, and whose British fanbase has never really extended beyond a large-ish cult. Peel’s invitation made sense; Davies’ does not. Nestled among the likes of Madness, Nick Lowe and John Cooper Clarke in Davies’ roster of invitees, Yo La Tengo look downright incongruous.
But to describe Yo La Tengo merely as an “indie” act is to seriously downplay their manifold qualities. During their 27-year history, the band have dabbled in countless musical styles. One of those styles is melodic, ’60s-inspired guitar pop that owes a considerable debt to Davies’ band. Yo La Tengo numbers such as Black Flowers and The Race Is On Again hint that there’s at least one well-thumbed copy of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in the band members’ record collections.
They’re pals with Davies, too: that much is clear from the curator’s effusive on-stage introduction. The band amble on to a cheesy organ-led theme, and guitarist Ira Kaplan proceeds to explain the gig’s ‘Reinventing The Wheel’ concept. It requires explaining, because the first part of this mammoth two-and-a-half-hour set is to be determined by the spinning of a game show-style wheel. We could get any one of nine possibilities, including a set comprising exclusively songs beginning with the letter ‘S’, one half of The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science (the band’s 2002 soundtrack to an aquatic wildlife documentary), or an entire episode of a classic American sitcom, acted out by the band in its entirety (yes, really).
This isn’t an original idea per se (Elvis Costello, for one, did something similar back in the ’80s), but Yo La Tengo are one of the few acts whose back catalogue is big enough and broad enough to accommodate this seemingly insane idea. That’s because putting Yo La Tengo’s back catalogue on shuffle is the equivalent of toggling between about a dozen different bands. What will you get next? Ambient? Shoegaze? Motown? Krautrock? An expletive-ridden Sun Ra cover?
An audience member is tasked with spinning the wheel (step forward an hirsute gentleman by the name of Travis). The wheel lands on ‘Condo Fucks‘. This means that we are to be treated to a 45-minute set from the band of the same name, Yo La Tengo’s short-lived 2009 garage rock side project. And the ‘Fucks play a blinder, playing (mostly) obscure covers, plus a Kinks number. It has to be said that the rarefied, all-seated environment of Royal Festival Hall is not the best environment for such rough-hewn music, but the veteran act tears through these songs with the vim of a band playing its first ever tour (which, in the case of the Condo Fucks, is kind-of true).
Following an interval, the band returns to play a regular Yo La Tengo set. In light of the band’s eclecticism, this, too, was always going to be an unpredictable prospect in the most enticing of ways. And so it proves. The languid opener Night Falls On Hoboken suggests that the band might be using this half to apply a soothing aural balm following the Condo Fucks’ sonic assault . But then we’re straight in to the driving rock of noisy deep cut Big Day Coming and all bets are off.
From there on, it’s a typically freewheeling Yo La Tengo gig. There’s a quiet patch in the middle where Kaplan abandons his guitar to perform The Weakest Part (requested by a fan via e-mail) and the gossamer-light Season Of The Shark. That segues into a noisy, fast-paced final third consisting of the rarely-played Cherry Chapstick, the frenetic Nothing To Hide, Tom Courtenay’s ageless indie pop and, finally, Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind – the latter featuring Kaplan on crazed axe murder guitar and the ever-doughty James McNew playing the same six notes on his bass for over ten minutes. It’s testament to the band’s musicianship that these shifts in gear don’t seem at all jarring, which makes the sole misstep (a shaky rendition of Avalon Or Someone Similar) eminently forgivable.
There are two encores. The first one is opened up to fans’ hollered requests; we’re rewarded with two numbers from the 1997 masterpiece I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (still the best starting point for Yo La Tengo novices): Autumn Sweater and the sweet, Georgia-sung My Little Corner Of The World (the latter bearing a whistling solo from an assistant in lieu of the original’s organ solo). That would’ve been the perfect way to sign off, but this bountiful concert has yet more to offer, in the form of a second encore comprising a second Kinks cover (God’s Children) and the lovely I Feel Like Coming Home. This was an unpredictable gig that was predictably excellent.