Yo La Tengo
The Black Sessions bootleg, 1997
Yo La Tengo has garnered a reputation for their covers, obscure or otherwise. In 1997, “Love Power” from Mel Brook’s The Producers was one of the former, a song from a movie that was not widely available to the public. A few years later it would be everywhere, with the original movie re-released and the stage adaptation a record-breaker both critically and commercially. But it was a nod to the forgotten when Yo La Tengo revived it that year, and I’m sure a large portion of the audience didn’t know the parodic intent of the song. The way Ira Kaplan calls out to remember Jerry Lewis on French radio probably did more to sell the comedic heart of it to the audience then any of the original content.
When I saw Yo La Tengo play this just a few months prior, I’m sure a similar percentage of the audience was oblivious to its origins. That June evening in Washington, DC was my first Yo La Tengo show after five years of fervent fandom. All these years and many more Yo La Tengo shows on, that night at the 9:30 Club is still the best they ever played. The mix of quiet grace and churlish snarl that was the great dichotomy of their sound was on stage, with gentle songs like “The Summer” and “Nowhere Near” sharing space with crazed blowouts like a truly epic take on “I Heard You Looking”. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One had been out a couple of months, and the fandom had quickly settled on thinking it was one of their best. They played more than a handful of songs from that album, and I remember “We’re An American Band” and “Autumn Sweater” fondly. Overall, it was a masterful set that left the audience spent but buzzing.
Then came the encore. I think it was three or four songs, but only two have lodged in my head. They opened their return with “Detouring America With Horns” from May I Sing With Me; the first Yo La Tengo song I ever heard, and over twenty years later still my favorite. The memory of it, of holding my then girlfriend/now wife close and whispering, “I can’t believe they’re playing this!” is strong enough to make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. The moment the drums came in I swear my heart skipped a beat. The encore and the evening ended with “Love Power”, and my memory says Ira was even more manic and unhinged than on this radio version. It was an odd but wonderful ending to what time has proven to be one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.