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Bishops at Large

By David Greenberger

Yo La Tengo

Colony Cafe, Woodstock, Oct. 20

Since this first paragraph determines whether you’ll read on to those that follow, let me state two things at the outset. First, this is a glowing review. Second, this should also serve as a preview, because the same tour continues and returns to the area next month at Mass MoCA.

Now more than 20 years old, Yo La Tengo have created a catalog that they add to with undiminished artistic integrity. The band’s earliest recordings have aged well, sounding as fresh and resilient as their newly minted brethren. Inspired by the Dylan album title, the band have set aside their love of electricity for an acoustic tour, dubbed the Freewheeling Yo La Tengo. (They also perform a couple Dylan songs in the soundtrack to the new Todd Haynes film, I’m Not There.) They didn’t completely eschew pickups and amplification, as James McNew played electric bass guitar and guitarist Ira Kaplan found a couple key moments to kick in some distortion. The two of them did play sitting down though, on either side of Georgia Hubley and her minimal drum setup (snare, floor tom and cymbal).

Last Saturday’s show in Woodstock provided an intimate setting (though don’t be fooled by the venue’s chairs: The seat padding may look soft, but halfway through the 90-minute set they were yielding little more comfort than a wooden plank). The dozen and a half songs drew from their latest album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and all the way back to their first, Ride the Tiger. The low volume allowed the singing to truly be appreciated; both Kaplan and Hubley sing in quietly emotive timbres that luxuriate over the music, much like falling asleep atop a made bed rather than peeking out from under blankets. A mood of casual camaraderie was encouraged by Kaplan’s between-song talking and request for questions (which was obliged by the audience). However, in song mode, they made it clear how in-sync they are as an ensemble and how respectful they are of each song’s inner dynamics and needs. The covers they played revealed their wide-ranging influences and love of great, but often neglected songs, as they performed numbers by John Cale, Carole King (by way of Herman’s Hermits), Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, and NRBQ.

To recap paragraph one: Do not miss Yo La Tengo’s acoustic show in November.

Brave New Prog

Porcupine Tree

The Egg, Oct. 18

By his own admission, bandleader Steven Wilson originally formed Porcupine Tree as a Spinal Tap-esque homage to early ’70s progressive rock (hence their rather silly moniker). Last Thursday’s concert in the Egg’s nearly sold-out Hart Theatre was many things, but humorous wasn’t one of them. The show commenced with the British band performing the title track off their latest full-length, Fear of a Blank Planet. The band’s major theme is youth alienation, and the video backdrop fleshed out the lyrics, kids sucked into the vortex of mass culture, raging at the world but placated by jacking into their Xboxes. The audience, which seemed to be comprised of mostly the prog-rock faithful (albeit prog in its Dream Theater form as opposed to early Genesis), lapped all of this up as if it came down straight from the mountaintop. Porcupine Tree are very good at what they do, laying down sleek, portentous grooves and hypnotic riffs that bring to mind a less heavy-handed Tool. The band succeed at making one think about the Brave New World we have made for ourselves, where we have mastered efficiency and comfort at the expense of real interaction with one another and our world.

There was a point where the alienation theme became less observational and more pathological. One started to sense that Wilson was the survivor of some sort of youthful trauma, and that he was exorcising these demons through his music. Which is all well and good—art is often made that way—but two hours of it started to feel too much like a therapy session. It would be one thing if the music were rougher, dappled with jagged edges that give you the option to rock out if the lyrics got too heavy (something a group like Nirvana were great at). As it was, Porcupine Tree’s music is too smooth for the weight of its themes, and while the show overall was very good, in the words of the poet Toby Keith, a little less talk and a lot more action would have made it even better.

—Mike Hotter

Killer queens: (l-r) Josh Homme and Michael Shuman of Queens of the Stone Age.

PHOTO: Chris Shields


Queens of the Stone Age, the Black Angels, Biffy Clyro

Northern Lights, Oct. 17

“Rock should be heavy enough for the boys and sweet enough for the girls. That way everyone’s happy and it’s more of a party,” Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme once said in an interview. He’s on to something: The QOTSA show at Northern Lights last Wednesday night was packed with fans from both genders, and songs like “Little Sister” and encore “No One Knows” were hard enough for the metalheads and rockers to shake their fists to, while being propelled by an insistent rhythm worthy of dancing.

Homme has also said in interviews that the Queens’ current live lineup is the best it’s ever been, which is saying a lot given that Dave Grohl and Mark Lanegan have both toured with the band. From the night’s first song, “Monsters in the Parasol,” a short but sweet burst of energetic groove, you could tell that Homme, agitating along with the beat, was feeling the chemistry of his new band, who have been touring together since the end of August. (Now the only original member in the group that is largely his brainchild, Homme has since added former Danzig drummer Joey Castillo, guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen, bassist Michael Shuman, and keyboardist Dean Ferita of the Raconteurs.)

Despite the lineup changes, the sound remained largely the same: that identifiable blend of crafty hooks and desert-rock riffs punctuated by handclaps and “heys” as often as actual lyrics. “I came a long way; I’m gonna do it and fuckin’ do it,” declared the hard-working Homme during the hourlong set that covered most of the material from the band’s fifth album, Era Vulgaris, released in June. Although the band may never again reach the critical and commercial success of 2002’s Songs for the Deaf, the latest album is a return to a darker, harder sound that suits QOTSA well, and the brisk “Sick Sick Sick” and the gloriously skuzzy “Misfit Love” were highlights of the set.

The Black Angels, aptly described by Queens guitarist Van Leeuwen as “Neil Young meets Nick Cave,” opened with a set as sprawling and dark as that comparison suggests. It would make better listening alone in a dark room than in a crowded club. But the crowd, at least by the stage, was surprisingly attentive during the Austin groups’s druggy neo-psych jams. Scottish trio Biffy Clyro tried to be all things to all people, whether mirroring the guitar fuzz and vocal warble of Dinosaur Jr. or miring in the quick chord changes and yelping vocals of screamo. But ultimately it just sounded like a hodgepodge of competing interests.

—Kirsten Ferguson

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