Live: Yo La Tengo (and David Byrne! and Glenn Mercer!) Come Together For Japan at Maxwell’s


Yo La Tengo
Wednesday, March 23

Better than: Sitting home alone fretting about cataclysmic awfulness.

It’s been 26 years since Yo La Tengo played every Wednesday at Maxwell’s, and a last-minute benefit for Peace Winds Japan had the trio sounding very much like a neighborhood band again. Not that they don’t normally anyway, but the familial mellowness was so palpable that it was easy to forget their other life as heavy cultural touchstones. Maybe it was because they left the vintage Acetone and Farfisa at home. But even the appearance of David Byrne in pinstriped overalls (and a bright white wristwatch) singing a new ballad about Imelda Marcos didn’t read as too far out of the ordinary. Every neighborhood needs an eccentric.

The closest the band came to mentioning the cause at hand came with a pair of covers: an opening take of the ESL psych-pop nugget, “I Am Just A Mops,” theme song to one Japan’s mid-’60s Group Sounds acts; and a lounge number, “The Words Get Stuck In My Throat, originally heard in 1966’s War of the Gargantua of the daikaiki eiga (“large monster”) genre. The focus, over the two hour-long sets, was a band in its element, or at least working earnestly to justify a $50 ticket. Playing a small second drum-kit, otherwise silent Portlandia dude Fred Armisen added a layer of slight roughage to the band’s usually airtight repertoire. The uncharacteristic looseness was charming, especially on a new cover of “Dave,” a 45 track by dB’s drummer (and old YLT pal/neighbor) Will Rigby, arranged for the night with drum machine, chintzy keys, and three-part vocals. Ira Kaplan took over bass for a song in each set in the guise of James McNew’s long-running Dump project, complete with a monster movie cover featuring McNew’s bandmate (and wife) Amy Posner on organ. Chill-ass vibes from a band that’s made a career by channeling nervous energy.

Byrne, last seen with the Tengos at Maxwell’s during Hanukkah 2002, came up at the end of the first set to add harmony to “Tears Are In Your Eyes.” The once head-Head introduced a new song, an addendum to his disco-pop opera Here Lies Love. Speaking of “the People Power Revolution” in the Philippines and declaring he intended to write an anthem, Byrne looked and sounded–in his overalls–as if he’d stepped straight from some neo-futurist pro-union propaganda wallpaper as he recalled, for a moment, the Velvet (Czechslovakian), Orange (Ukranian), and Jasmine (Tunisian) Revolutions. The song itself was more typically Byrne, a ballad in Caetano Veloso mode, lush chords and a melody cleverly knotted to accommodate tons of words — and, one night only, Georgia Hubley adding an empathetic sweetness to the chorus. But the winner of Byrne’s mini-set was a mournful, Tengoized “Thank You For Sending Me An Angel,” Georgia translating the song’s galloping tom fills into lonesome mallet thumps.

A quartet of tunes with The Feelies’ Glenn Mercer (another Maxwell’s vet) filled out the neighborhood vibe: a local hero, slightly aged, though no less inscrutable behind tinted glasses. They did a couple of Feelies numbers and then launched into a Velvet Underground cover. But dang if it didn’t do the trick, the evening’s sloppiness coalescing for a few minutes into a laidback/locked-in groove between Hubley and Armisen, Kaplan and Mercer skronking magically in tandem, ambient overtones appearing somewhere between them and vaporizing. And that was it, and only for a few minutes. No encore, just some sleet and crap–like Hanukkah in March!–and another Wednesday night trying to figure out how to get home from Hoboken.

Critical Bias: Writing book about band.

Overheard: “Oh, like Spiderman!” (audience member in response to David Byrne’s introduction to a song from his “disco-pop opera.”)

Random Notebook Dump: DB eyes James curiously as James applies electrical tape to hold down keyboard key.


(Whole show with Fred Armisen on second drumkit.)

Set 1:
I Am Just A Mops (The Mops)
Sudden Organ
Moby Octopad
Little Eyes
Dave (Will Rigby)
Periodically Double or Triple
A Plea For Dump
Black Flowers
Tears Are In Your Eyes (with David Byrne on vocals)
God Draws Straight (David Byrne) (with David Byrne on guitar and vocals)
Give Me Flowers While I’m Living (Lester Flatt and Earl Scrugg) (with David Byrne on guitar and vocals)
Thank You For Sending Me An Angel (Talking Heads) (with David Byrne on vocals)

Set 2:
Come See Me (The Pretty Things)
Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind
The Words Get Stuck In My Throat (with Amy Posner on organ)
Season Of The Shark
Mr. Tough
Cherry Chapstick
It’s Only Life (The Feelies) (with Glenn Mercer on guitar and vocals)
On The Roof (The Feelies) (with Glenn Mercer on guitar and vocals)
From A Motel 6 (with Glenn Mercer on guitar)
Run, Run, Run (Velvet Underground) (with Glenn Mercer on guitar and vocals)