Since celebrating their thirtieth anniversary with a string of historic shows at Town Hall in December, Yo La Tengo has spent the last few months surfacing in surprisingly different guises. The trio has popped up in New Jersey backing filmmaker Sam Green’s “live documentary” The Lovesong of R. Buckminster Fuller, ripped through garage-punk covers at Cake Shop as Condo Fucks, and flown to Chicago to jam in Grateful Dead cover bands. At Pioneer Works last month, the group collaborated with a host of New York jazz veterans to make up Little Black Egg Big Band. An expansion of Georgia Hubley’s solo guitar project, this version of Little Black Egg Big Band paired YLT’s signature distorted guitars with flute, horns, organ, bass, and drums for a drone-filled hour-long performance.
Part of ISSUE Project Room’s adventurously programmed summer series (the previous week saw legendary sax-noise trio Borbetomagus open for legendary Portland country-punk rockers Dead Moon), this show found the band exploring a freely improvised style they’ve only ever hinted at under their main stage name. Playing off Susie Ibarra’s bright and varied percussion, horn players Taylor Ho Bynum and Daniel Carter dueled with Ira Kaplan’s melodic guitar lines while former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone added layers of synthesizer organ and upright bass. Anchored by Maimone and James McNew’s constant drone, the group crafted a richly textured sound which, over the hour, slowly gained in intensity and volume. While Kaplan and Hubley’s distorted guitars sometimes recalled the sustained, melodic sounds of Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, and their krautrock cousins, the performance ultimately favored atmosphere over groove. The group never stayed anywhere for too long, which at times made it hard to remember where they’d come from in the first place. The musicians on stage furrowed their brows and exchanged glances, as if to acknowledge their vastly different backgrounds in indie rock, free jazz, and experimental music.
Mostly, though, this up-for-grabs technique made for a dynamic performance. Every moment, every sound was constantly in the making. Ibarra switched from muted hand drumming to slamming cymbals in the span of a few bars, Bynum used a pie-tin as a trumpet mute, and Carter’s opening flute melodies soon morphed into an alto sax screech. Right as the performance hit its peak, Kaplan flipped his guitar onto his lap and began to rhythmically pound his fists into the side of his guitar. The gesture—both epic and intimate, freeform and controlled—perfectly embodied the spirit of the performance as well as the Pioneer Works space itself, which is cavernous and high-ceilinged but feels quite narrow and small when packed with people.
The night began with a performance by the Australian improviser Oren Ambarchi, a fixture at ISSUE Project Room for the last few years and in the experimental music world at large for going on three decades. Though well known for his work in the band Sun O))) and for his trio with Keiji Haino and Jim O’Rourke, Ambarchi is equally renowned for his solo performances and records. He appeared on the Pioneer Works stage with his usual setup: electric guitar wired through a dense thicket of pedals which were propped up onto a table. Ambarchi looped a sustained drone note to play every five seconds or so, creating a simple pulse over which he layered increasingly phased, distorted, and trebly guitar arpeggios. Though never sticking with any repeating phrase, Ambarchi’s high notes locked into rhythmic patterns which, alongside the repeated drone, gave the performance a high-powered, forward motion. Eyes closed and head cocked back, Ambarchi launched into a series of bluesy sheets-of-sound solos on his left-handed Les Paul, which hissed and popped as if the sounds were coming out of an old cassette player. By the end of the performance, Tony Maimone’s synthesizer was shaking from the vibrations.
Ambarchi’s loud, locked-in performance set the stage nicely for the quieter, more atmospheric concerns of the seven-person Little Black Egg Big Band. While Ambarchi dug into his rock ‘n’ roll chops more than he normally does at ISSUE shows, YLT mostly kept their amps turned close to 1. The space between the two sets called up a specific blend of drone, krautrock, electronic music, and free jazz. Ultimately, the real treat of the night lay in seeing some of indie rock’s biggest stars huddle together on a cramped stage to make a kind of collaborative, experimental music totally separate from their work as Yo La Tengo. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t claim to hear at times a little of “Night Falls on Hoboken” coming from Ira’s guitar—or if I said that was a bad thing.
MICHAEL BLAIR is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri and a member of the Yo La Tengo cover band the Electric Tie Rack Preservation Society.