Report: Yo La Tengo, More @ L-Coast Live

 

With Yo La Tengo, Big Jay McNeely, Orange
Peels and the Mumlers – plus, almost, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy – held in
downtown San Jose
on June 25.

 

By Jud Cost

 

It was pretty
much a reversal of fortune for this year’s Left Coast Live festival in downtown
San Jose.
Especially when compared to last year’s dismal maiden effort that had all the joie de vivre of an alien autopsy. At
least, this year’s Saturday night headliner, Yo La Tengo, was not saddled with
an unworkable 6:00 p.m. starting time, as was Booker T., the 2009 main event.
They’ve closed off an even longer chunk of South 1st Street this year, but the 9:15
time for Yo La Tengo means more hustle and flow on the boulevard and a markedly
more party-like vibe for the 2010 gathering. But you still can’t book a hundred
mostly unknown acts into every tiny joint in town with four walls and a
restroom, wave a magic wand and get instant South By Southwest. And yet,
progress is progress.

 

The Orange
Peels, certainly the Bay Area’s best pop band since the late-70s heyday of the
Rubinoos, were slotted to play what looked like the storage room of a small
Latino art gallery called MACLA. The sound here was brittle enough to shatter
glass, and at the same time booming to the point that all nuance from the OPs’
trademark harmonies and lush melodies was totally lost. It was quite simply the
worst room acoustics I’ve ever heard in 40 years attending rock gigs.

 

Orange Peels
frontman Allen Clapp heartily agreed as he mopped his brow after the set.
“It felt like I was inside a garbage can out there,” he sighed. It
was a shame that Clapp’s intelligent lyrics and the brilliant lead breaks of
new guitarist (and former band drummer) John Moremen were all but inaudible,
trapped in quicksand by the oatmeal-and-tapioca ambience of a room that should
never have been used for live music.

 

With an audience
of only 15 or so who wandered in (and out) before Yo La Tengo  finished its set in the street outside, it
almost felt like the Orange Peels were playing to an empty room. “It’s
really quiet in here. It feels like the come-down lounge,” said Clapp
after one Peels tune that was distorted by the acoustics to the point of
sounding like something by garage-psych heroes the 13th Floor Elevators.

 

The main stage
PA, on the other hand, sounded terrific. San Jose
band the Mumlers opened for Yo La Tengo in fine style at 8:00 p.m. with their South Bay
take on the “freak folk” sound of 
Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Vetiver. The Mumlers have an oddball
lineup that combines tenor sax, trumpet and two kinds of tuba with the angular
lead vocals and occasional fuzzed-out electric guitar of Will Sprott. “I
was gonna do some stage-diving tonight, but it’s a really long way down to the
ground,” mumbled Sprott amiably as he eyeballed the eight-foot drop to the
asphalt below, before breaking into “99 Years Ago,” a bluesy remake
of old chestnut “St. James Infirmary.”

 

“Being a
band from San Jose
has its good nights and its not so good nights,” said Sprott afterwards as
he peddled CDs from the merch table. “The real problem is there just
aren’t enough places to play here.” He also noted that nearby downtown
university San Jose
State is mostly a
commuter college, leaving a relatively small pool of resident students with any
interest in the indie-rock night life.

 

Yo La Tengo
bassist James McNew, lugging an armload of band t-shirts to sell before the
gig, vaguely recalled playing San Jose’s Cactus Club back in the ’80s, the
empty shell of which stares at us from right across the street. The billions of
dollars spent in high-rise, luxury hotels and towering glass and concrete
office buildings since the phoenix-like rise of Silicon
Valley have gone unnoticed. And from this three-block vantage
point, nothing’s really changed in 25 years. Except the five once-thriving rock
clubs have all gone belly-up.

 

Yo La Tengo took
the stage to a warm welcome from a crowd of about 350 with usual lead
guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan playing bass, Georgia Hubley on drums and McNew
splattering the crowd with a lumbering, dangerous guitar sound that would seem
more at home on a Melvins record. Of course, that’s one of the best elements of
Yo La Tengo, now 26 years old and weaned on old Velvet Underground albums. You
may think you know what they’re going to play, but there are always plenty of
surprises, both live and on their 12 full-length albums.

 

I haven’t seen
the New Jersey trio, who cut their teeth at
Maxwell’s in Hoboken, since 1992 when My Bloody
Valentine and Buffalo Tom opened for them at the Warfield in San Francisco. But things haven’t changed too
much since then. “Georgia and I are going to sing a duet. Duet, that’s a
technical term,” laughed Kaplan as the band played something mellow off
their most recent longplayer, Popular
Songs
.

 

The evening took
a decidedly weird turn as I hoofed it over to Milano, a dingy nitery with zero
curb appeal, tucked away over on 2nd
Street. As I was thoroughly frisked for weapons at
the door (none found), a car parked around the corner blared out what sounded
like Vietnamese hip hop. Once inside, I instantly felt I’d been transported to
a slightly more polished version of One-Eyed Jack’s, the scary roadhouse from
David Lynch’s TV masterpiece, Twin Peaks, where high school girls were shanghaied to
work as prostitutes.

 

Or maybe it was
the reincarnation of legendary Santa
Clara, Calif. honky
tonk Napredak Hall without the sawdust on the floor. Located somewhere off
Lawrence Station Road, Napredak was the joint high on the tour itinerary of
every ’50s/’60s country & western star, from Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell,
Roy Acuff, Webb Pierce and Faron Young to George Jones, Buck Owens, Merle
Haggard and Johnny Cash. Whatever the vibe, oldtime hipsters, dressed to the
nines, are dancing the bop tonight with their dolled-up ladies to hardcore doo wop
and early ’50s R&B.

 

After a
half-hour teaser set by his backup combo, there he was right in front of me,
Big Jay McNeely, walking around the dance floor hunched-up and blowing the
honkingest tenor sax, ever, into a wireless mic attached to the bell of his
horn. Now 83, this guy has been around so long, he was playing tenor when John
Coltrane was still in the Navy. McNeely’s been making records since the late
’40s and frequently played live dressed up in colorful threads, blowing a horn
illuminated by fluorescent paint while lying flat on his back. He’s billed now
as “the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll saxophone.”

 

McNeely’s
curtailed the onstage gymnastics these days, but his buzzsaw tone, learned from
records by famed tenorman Illinois Jacquet, can still hypnotize the crowd much
like another famous dude in a loud suit, the Pied Piper. McNeely sits with the
audience a spell while still playing his horn, then sings “I Can’t Stop
Loving You” in a barrelhouse baritone.

 

How to top what
I’ve just seen? The only possibility is a nightcap with storied local crazyman,
the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, scheduled for a post-midnight set at First
Street Billiards. “You’re just in time,” mutters the guy at the door
when I inquire whether “the Ledge” and his notorious bugle and
cowbell have made an appearance yet. The last time I saw the man who once cut
“Paralyzed” back in the ’70s, somebody tossed a full bottle of water
onto my wife’s head from a balcony seat.

 

I sidle into the
pool hall just in time to hear an unknown trio of old geezers, dressed in
spike-topped World War I German army helmets, singing the Who’s “My
Generation”… in German. Since I don’t have a helmet of my own I make the
snap decision to call it a night, before I wind up in the ER, myself. It’s been
a helluva trek through the underbelly of San Jose, a center-cut sliced from the
pumping heart of Left Coast Live, a rock festival that may be going somewhere
in spite of itself. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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