For Ray Davies curated Meltdown
Yo La Tengo, Royal Festival Hall, London by Rachel Lipsitz

It’s a cold and uncharacteristically gloomy evening in London - well, for June anyway - as people make their way inside the Royal Festival Hall for the latest event of Southbank’s Meltdown Festival, curated this year by former Kinks frontman Ray Davis.

Tonight’s show is Yo La Tengo, who are currently bringing their zany Reinventing The Wheel tour to UK audiences. The premise is simple: there are no support acts, only one big spinning wheel with 9 possible outcomes, one of which will determine which sort of set the band performs for the first half of the show. The scenarios range from the straightforward to the downright screwy, from playing a set of songs beginning with the letter ‘S’ to the acting out of a classic American sitcom episode.

After the rules are explained and an audience member is selected (at random we’re assured - and really, who wouldn’t trust Yo La Tengo?), a tall, bear-like man makes his way to the stage to give the big wheel a mighty spin. A drum roll ensues and the audience suspense, although palpable, is infectiously genial. Then the wheel grinds to a halt and the outcome is decided; the band will perform as their alter-ego The Condo Fucks, a raucous garage rock covers band (they have recorded one full-length album and two EPs in this guise).

What follows is a virtually non-stop set of mean, squealing electric guitars, heavy riffs and sharp blasts of feedback, which recalls the shambolic noise of both the Stooges and the Wipers. Buried inside the co-current noise, however, are a few veritable pop gems, including covers of ‘Look Back In Anger’ by Television Personalities, The Kinks’ ‘This is Where I Belong’, and The Troggs’ classic ‘With A Girl Like You’, sung by drummer Georgia Hubley and complete with the “Ba-Ba- Ba-Ba” sing-along.

In 1993, legendary Village Voice critic Robert Christgau famously wrote of Yo La Tengo’s album ‘Painful’: “This is the fooling around of folks who like to go out on Saturday night and make some noise – and then go home humming it.” It’s a quote that brilliantly encapsulates their entire career.

After the almost unrelenting white noise of the first half of the show, the band opened up the main set with the gentle ‘Night Falls On Hoboken’, the epic closer from 2000’s ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’. The soft strumming of Ira Kaplan’s acoustic guitar and the clement, almost breathed harmonies from Georgia, gradually build to a swell of feedback-driven noise on top of McNew’s repetitive, hypnotic baseline, before finally spilling over and merging into the driving rocker ‘Big Day Coming’.

Yo La Tengo’s reputation for versatility is on full show tonight, as instruments are swapped back and forth, and heavily distorted guitars lead into slow and sublime vocal melodies. By the time they play ‘Tom Courtenay’, one of the most perfect pop songs written by anyone, at anytime, it is clear that this is a band who, in this their 27th year of existence, still love what they do.

What also becomes apparent is that Georgia Hubley’s voice is one of the greatest unsung treasures of popular music. Her performance of ‘My Little Corner Of The World’ during the encore would have warmed the cockles of the heart of the coldest, meanest son-of-a-bitch on the seven seas, let alone the hundreds of people sitting in perfect silence in the Royal Festival Hall, on a gloomy summer’s night in London.

Words by Kerry Tyrrell
Photo by Rachel Lipsitz

View a full gallery from Yo La Tengo's gig at the Royal Festival Hall for the Ray Davies curated Meltdown festival HERE.

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