Friday, September 25, 2009

Epic performance, unlikely location

Ordinarily I wouldn't drive to a sleepy southeastern Ohio town to see indie rock legends perform in a small theater. That kind of band plays Columbus, not Nelsonville. The 400-seat Stuart's Opera House doesn't usually book an act like Yo La Tengo, but this is the place that landed Arcade Fire for a special show during the run-up to last year's primary. Clearly they have a reputation of some sort.

So there I was, heading into the Hocking Hills region to attend last night's concert. I wanted to see Yo La Tengo, a group I'd never seen before, but I also was curious to get a better look at Stuart's. The place, which opened in 1879, is not a location one comes across every day.

The second story performance space isn't anything fancy, but it's been nicely restored and maintained. The room feels somewhat like my old elementary school auditorium if it had more money sunk into it. For an old place, there's plenty of leg room in the seating area, although I suspect that was not an original feature. (FYI, I took the above photo pretty early on. Most of the seats for the concert were sold.)

As for Yo La Tengo, wow. I could stand to be more familiar with their discography--their latest, Popular Songs, is terrific--but I lucked out because I knew most of what they played and was blown away by everything. There's the fuzzy pop of "Tom Courtenay" and "Sugarcube", delicate and sweet tunes like "My Little Corner of the World", and extended, atmospheric, feedback-drenched blasts so loud that they seemed to render my ear plugs useless. While they have a distinct sound, their music is varied enough that they can sound like completely different bands from song to song.

Typically they're compared to the Velvet Underground, which probably explains why they've had more critical success than widespread commercial appeal. It's a shame that a band that's been at it for 25 years is only playing to a few hundred all these years later, but apparently they're able to make it work.

When applied to artists who are still creating, the "legend" tag often implies that their best work is behind them or, at worst, that the new art is passable but not vital. Last night Yo La Tengo often dipped into I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a favorite of mine, but the new stuff and their outstanding talents as a live band prove to me that they deserve to be hailed for their artistic longevity and ongoing abilities as a band worth hearing on record and seeing in concert.

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