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M. Ward w/Yo La Tengo, Wyatt Cenac
Celebrate Brooklyn! at Prospect Park Bandshell
Tuesday, August 7
Better than: Having your appendix removed (get well soon, absent Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew).
There was a quiet in the air as I approached the Prospect Park Bandshell, home of the Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series. The crowd gathered outside the gates was gently folding blankets and Instagramming pictures of their ticket stubs, enveloped in a hush that would act as a precursor to a night of subdued laughs and whispered words.
The Daily Show‘s Wyatt Cenac wore a black t-shirt and cargo shorts, contributing to the evening’s understated tone. I have seen him a bunch of times around town, and even while playing to an outdoor crowd, many of whom were still finding their seats when he hit the stage, he had an uncanny ability to hold the audience. On the occasion that his jokes go slightly adrift, he reels it back in with the perfect line (like his description of a cheap lightsaber knock-off as a “shine stick”). The audience did, however, balk slightly at his mention of the Brooklyn Target, which—well, allow me to express my feelings about this reaction in a formal letter:
He just mentioned Target. He is a stand-up comedian. Give him a chance to craft a joke about it before you start grumbling. No one is going to take your artisanal mayonnaise stores away because you laughed at a joke about Target.
Yo La Tengo took the stage at 7:30 sharp, and singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan announced that the band was going to “do something they hadn’t done in 20 years”—play without bassist James McNew. In his stead were legendary violinist David Mansfield and original YLT guitarist Dave Schramm. As usual, Ira and drummer Georgia Hubley split vocal duties but the music, despite the lineup being up a member, rarely stretched above a whisper.
I try not to get too caught up in how surroundings affect my enjoyment of a band, but last night was ideal for hanging around in a park and listen to Yo La Tengo play from the gentler end of their catalog. There seemed to be a complicit agreement between the band and audience: “We will play quietly if you agree to talk quietly.” As the set progressed, the two pinch-hitters added some fine playing. Schramm brought some deft guitar work to “Can’t Forget” and Mansfield pulled out some of the alt-country leanings in a number of YLT’s songs.
As the set drew to a close, Schramm admirably sang lead on (the usually McNew-sung) “Stockholm Syndrome.” The simple setup—minimal drums, acoustic guitar, violin and electric guitar—was a reminder that great songs can be presented in different ways without losing their power. To hammer that point home, Ira wrung note after discordant note out of his acoustic guitar on a triumphant version of “Sugarcube” before closing the set with a sparse and sweet version of “Our Way to Fall.”
If Yo La Tengo has alt-country leanings, then headliner M. Ward leans toward the genre so far that he falls flat on his back. That said, Ward plays across the spectrum of Americana with a confident hand. While his songwriting can veer toward bar-band territory (see: “Rollercoaster”), it is hard to find fault with his guitar playing. On both the intricate acoustic intro to “Clean Slate” and the rolling leads of “For Beginners,” he contorts his body around his guitar, almost ripping the notes from the neck in an utterly natural fashion. His skill was on full display on the cover of John Fahey’s “Bean Vine Blues #2,” which sounded appropriately loose and ragged and featured a weird fuzz-bass solo that literally made me laugh.
The set peaked during a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” that allowed every member of his band to stretch out. Ward’s guitar playing was the highlight, helping take the song from its original downstrokes to a swaying clap-along tempo. As he contorted his body around the mic, his voice (and his guitar) went from sweet to sinister in an instant. Under the bar-band trappings lies something deeper—and Ward’s strengths reside there as well.
Critical bias: Cenac once performed a significant portion of a stand-up set while sitting on my lap.
Overheard: “You’re standing on our blanket!” (twice)
Random notebook dump: Ira Kaplan was positively beaming while watching Cenac from the wings; he might have been the heartiest laugher when Cenac slammed the Washington Wizards.