Unfortunately, buzz photographer Abby Toms and I had a belated arrival at Krannert’s Tyron Festival theatre for Yo La Tengo opener Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter. The Seattle-based folk-rock act proved definitely worthy of media attention. Lead singer-guitarist Jesse Sykes and her male counterparts produced a sound that hearkened back to the 60s and 70s, fusing Neil Young-like chord progressions with psychedelic distractions reminiscent of Floyd. Sykes, with her long, unkempt hair and no-fuss attire, seemed the perfect embodiment of a modern Janis Joplin, albeit better-looking and without the overtly scratchy voice. If Cat Power turned country, and added four men to her act, Jesse Sykes and The Sweet Hereafter is what you’d get. I am a newfound fan.
Yo La Tengo, that much anticipated indie cult fav of the night, took the stage with measured aplomb. Although some (even the band itself) may compare these aging rockers to the Flaming Lips, the band has its own idiosyncratic flair. Compared to Wayne Coyne and crew, Yo La Tengo is more ambient and less “in your face”, embodying a more understated aesthetics, both visually and musically. Though the indie virgin may not be able to sit through an entire Yo La Tengo concert without getting a minor headache, part of the trio’s mission is to make the discordant work. Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew prove that “cacophonous melodies” doesn’t have to be an oxymoronic statement.
During an instrumental transfer from guitar to keyboard, Kaplan uttered his first words to the audience, noting that it’d been eight years since the band had visited the “twin cities,” and dubbing it a “circle of life” type phenomenon. However, Krannert’s Tyron theatre proved a decidedly different venue for the band, considering Yo La Tengo’s past visits to CU involved performances at more intimate bar settings, such as downtown Champaign’s High Dive and the Blind Pig.
Barefaced and donned in a brown “Ballroom!” shirt, drummer Georgia Hubley produced an all-out sonic assault in the percussive arena. In terms of vocals, though Hubley is tonally comparable to Warhol legend and model Nico (think Velvet Underground), the drummer’s style is more aggressive deviant and less hip seductress. Hubley refused to let any of the songs gradually decrescendo, ending each piece with an almost jarring, final percussive strike. However, it is such stylistic touches that come to define Yo La Tengo as a quintessential “modern” rock band.
Yo La Tengo kept the audience’s rapt attention throughout, mixing up oldies with songs off their latest album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006). A personal highlight of the concert, “Mr. Tough,” provided the audience an upbeat, jazzy break from the band’s more experimental pieces: a danceable beat, Charlie Brown-like instrumentals, and falsetto, Bowie-inspired harmonies.
Out of all three band members, Ira Kaplan proved most musically adept, as exemplified by his unceasing energy and dynamic stage presence. Kaplan’s seizure-like “attacks” on the guitar even elicited a few snickers from the awed audience, all eyes fixated on his gyrating figure. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Kaplan experienced a minor case of whip lash after last night’s show.
Sitting in the third row of the audience, the female attendee seated next to me proved quite the distraction, with suspicious glances at my note-taking, as well as the verbal threat of “are you writing shit about the band? because you better not be.” Little did she know.
Seated with a tambourine-clad ankle at his percussive set, David “Moose” Adamson brought soulful “big beats” to the Krannert Center lobby. Sporting a red bandanna, outdated sunglasses, and a loud t-shirt, the Indianapolis native proved and looked quite the character. Combining heavy, eclectic beats with half-talking, half-singing vocals, Adamson created his own music machine. The comedic performer ended his set with the laugh-out-loud “The Girl Ain’t Preggers,” a personal favorite which he explicitly described as “not funny.” Taking the show’s energy up a notch, Adamson busted out his dance moves, even venturing into the audience for a few seconds. Although greatly entertaining, Grampall Jookabox’s act proved too high-powered for such an intimate setting as Krannert’s small lobby.
Mary Pearson and Robert Barber comprise High Places, the Brooklyn-based act, self-described as combination of surf, hardcore, and trance. With Pearson donned in a preppy Oxford, and Barber sporting an orange and blue striped shirt (feel the Illinoise, anyone?), the duo reminded me more of an American Eagle advertisement than an indie-electronic act. My original impression was immediately jettisoned however, the second Barber busted out his drum sticks and Pearson began wailing into the mic. High Places produced a sound both ethereal and grounded, fusing primitive, tribal beats with spacey, extraterrestrial echoes and reverb. With footage of aquatic scenes and frolicking children projected onto the lobby’s brick wall, the duo created an atmosphere of low-grade, “pomo” (postmodern) performance art. Bouncing their heads in unison to the mighty bass, Pearson and Barber’s visceral, hyperkinetic performance seemed out of place at Krannert. For High Places’ act to be truly effective, the duo requires a spacious venue (such as Canopy), where a standing audience can fully participate in the duo’s impressive sonic collage.