Noah Brier | April 15, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Live Music Edition

On performance, acoustics, and re-thinking what you know

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I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One

A 1997 album by Yo La Tengo, described by Pitchfork as 'cozy' in a 20th-anniversary review.

Noah here. Like everyone else, I’ve been rabidly searching for non-virus things to read lately. When this weekend’s New York Times Magazine arrived with a big profile of Weird Al Yankovic, I jumped at the opportunity to dive into something different. While the whole thing is well worth the read, there was one paragraph towards the beginning that particularly stood out to me. It’s about the first time the author, Sam Anderson, saw Weird Al in person. Having been a fan his whole life, Anderson had never thought of seeing Weird Al live. “To me, Weird Al had always been a fundamentally private pleasure,” he writes. “I was perfectly content to have him living in my headphones and on YouTube and — very occasionally when I wanted to aggravate my family — out loud on my home speakers.”

But going to see him perform at Forest Hills Stadium gave him a whole new perspective on the music and performer:

Onstage, Weird Al sat on a wooden stool and started to snap like a lounge singer. With an orchestra swelling behind him — the tour was called “Strings Attached” — he kicked into a soulful medley of 1980s parodies. If that does not sound great to you, if it in fact sounds like a very particular flavor of sonic hell, I am here to tell you something. Weird Al was absolutely belting. He was singing the bejesus out of this ridiculous music. I leaned back in my chair, reassessing core assumptions I had made about life. Was this somehow part of the joke — that Weird Al was an amazing singer? His voice was athletic and precise; he was rippling through intricate trills and runs. By the time he reached the medley’s climax — “Like a Surgeon,” his 1985 parody of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” — Yankovic was stretching for high notes and holding them over his head for the crowd to admire, like an Olympic weight lifter who had just snatched 500 pounds.

Why is this interesting?

Over the last few years, I can count the number of shows I’ve attended on two hands. It’s a combination of family life, concert decibels, and past feelings of disappointment as I stand in the crowd at a subpar show. But on the flip side, there are a handful of live performances I’ve been to that completely shifted my understanding of the music. This, to me, is the pinnacle of concerts: a show so good that it makes you question everything you thought about the sounds you’ve been listening to for years. These performances can bring new layers to old notes. Songs enjoyed on headphones in personal contexts can turn more ferocious and pointed when played publicly. While most people talk about the obvious transfer of energy from band to crowd and vice-versa, there are a host of other variables from the room size to the sound mixing that can make or break a live performance. 

The most vivid version of this kind of transformative show came the first time I saw Yo La Tengo. A friend had turned me onto the band at some point in college, and while their 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One certainly has some rocking sections, overall, it feels nice and chill (Pitchfork called it “cozy” in a 20th-anniversary review).

But then I saw them at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. Each year the band would play all eight nights of Hannukah at the very small venue. Its low-ceilings and short stage made for a very different kind of concert than the ones I usually attended at the time, which tended towards bigger rooms and crowds. As soon as they started playing, the music became all-encompassing. I realized that I had completely misjudged them from their albums as the feedback nearly ripped my ears from my head. It was loud and hypnotic and amazing. Here’s how the New York Times described the show in 2012 (which I may have been at):

Yo La Tengo is in the middle of its eight-night run of Hanukkah shows here at Maxwell’s, a nearly annual platform since 2001 that illustrates the band and its environment as perfectly as any concert can. More than 25 years ago this band formed in this town, building its sound within this club’s acoustics.

There was something thoroughly magical about seeing them live in that place. It was clear that they had created their sound in that venue (it’s where Ira and Georgia, the married guitarist and drummer, first met). It was the most perfect melding of space and sound I’ve experienced. I have to imagine it’s akin to hearing a great orchestra in a perfectly-appointed concert hall—after thirty years they knew how to play with that specific room as if it were another member of the band. On top of that, the venue size, array of friends and guests joining for songs, and hometown nature of the show, made the whole thing feel more like hanging out with a very loud local garage band than being at a concert. When guests like Bright Eyes, Lee Ranaldo, or Andrew Bird showed up, it was just a small step from the crowd to the stage, which only added to the whole convivial feeling. 

As soon as I got home after that first show, I went back and relistened to everything with entirely different ears (what was left of them at least). It gave the music more depth than I had heard before. Not every band or every show can live up to that kind of transformative experience, but when you get one, it’s special. (NRB)

Scissors of the Day:

Via Todd Osborn on WITI contributors’ Slack comes this fantastic video of the most expensive bonsai clippers in the world (they go up to $35,000). They come from Sasuke, who have been operating since the 1860s in Osaka, making swords and scissors. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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