Report: Yo La Tengo/Urinals Live Oakland

 

On Feb. 22 at Oakland’s
Fox Theater, Ira, Georgia and James spun the wheel
and came up aces – or, more accurately, landed in a Dump. Also on the bill were
west coast punk legends the Urinals.

 

By Jud
Cost

For Yo La
Tengo to play live twice on the West Coast within an eight-month span is a rare
treat. When they headlined San Jose’s
Left Coast Live festival last summer, they were pretty much ducking flak from
anti-aircraft ack-ack guns, flying under the radar and searchlights of Bay Area
publicity.

 

Tonight,
kicking off the 2011 Noise Pop mini-season at Oakland’s palatial Fox Theater,
the storied Hoboken, N.J. threesome were preaching to a near full-house of
longtime fans who had, perhaps, seen them more than 20 years ago at hip San
Francisco nightspots the I-Beam or the Kennel Club. “This is a nice place.
The first time we played in the East
Bay, it was kind of like
this…at Berkeley Square,”
deadpanned band leader Ira Kaplan, referring to the microscopic University Ave.
punk joint that held about 75 people, max.

 

Over
syrupy canned background music that could have been the theme for The Merv Griffin Show, Kaplan, in his
milkiest talk-show-host voice revealed how the band’s set would be determined
tonight. Someone rolled out an extra-large Wheel
Of Fortune
-style spinner with all the set-list possibilities painted on an
oversized clock face. Kaplan, as Pat Sajak, chose an audience member to try his
luck and the arrow landed on “Dump.” Which meant the first set would
consist solely of psychedelic guitar-laced numbers from bassist James McNew’s
long-running side project of that name.

 

It was an
extraordinary “coals to Newcastle” treat to hear the hulking McNew
(who usually plays bass in Yo La Tengo), featured in a 60-minute, fuzz-laden,
guitar freak-out in the backyard of such fabled “summer of love”
stringbusters as John Cipollina, Barry Melton, Jorma Kaukonen, James Gurley and
Jerry Garcia. McNew, with a little help from drummer Georgia Hubley, did all
the singing, too. Kaplan played bass and rested his pipes for the second set
which I, alas, had to miss so I could catch the BART train home.

 

Besides,
I’d already scratched a 30-year itch by getting to the Fox early for a heroic
40-minute set by legendary Los Angeles
punk trio the Urinals. Arising phoenix-like from the affluent surroundings of
UCLA in 1979, the Urinals took out their comfortable upbringing on their
classmates by waxing punk gems like “Salmonella,” “Ack Ack Ack
Ack” and “I’m White And Middle Class.” Bassist/songwriter John
Talley-Jones, guitarist Kjehl Johansen and drummer Kevin Barrett somehow fit
into a loose-knit, Velvet Underground-influenced, intercontinental scene that
also included London’s Wire, New England’s Mission Of Burma and New Zealand’s
the Clean.

 

Regrettably,
I missed the Urinals if, indeed, they ever did play San
Francisco’s punk citadel, the Mabuhay Gardens.
Growing tired of their Moms-unfriendly original name, the trio adapted and
morphed into 100 Flowers around the time the Paisley Underground bands were
venturing north in the early ’80s. 100 Flowers were slotted to play the Old
Waldorf in early 1983 with Green On Red and the Bangles, but their last-minute
cancellation was turned into a bonanza when Rain Parade took their place on the
bill.

 

And now,
28 years later (with guitarist Rob Roberge on board for Johansen), here they
were, about to ignite a crowd of about 100 of the curious, rattling around in a
room that could hold about three thousand. Barrett banged his sticks together,
one, two, three, four, and they were off to the races as though they’d never
left: real, honest-to-god, two-chord punk rock as it was meant to sound. They
must have exploded through 20 songs in 40 minutes with a blast-furnace
intensity, like the day your Mom turned up the vegetable pressure-cooker too
high and splattered the ceiling with broccoli and zucchini.

 

“It’s
been great seeing Yo La Tengo every night on this tour. We’re not used to being
the second best band onstage,” said a grey-haired Talley-Jones, breathing
hard between songs. “Yeah,” cracked Roberge. “We usually play
with three bands.”

 

 

 

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