NYC’s Summerstage: Yo La Tengo & Ultimate Painting
In Central, Park Indie Bands Bridge the Generation Gap
NYC’s Central Park Summerstage has been an important part of the city’s outdoor events for decades. Through the years I’ve seen Lou Reed, John Cage, Sun Ra and others in that outdoor theater. Last night was a free concert featuring the veteran indie band Yo La Tengo and the new British band Ultimate Painting. Many things have changed over the years at Summerstage: security and bag checks at nauseam, $9 beers, and the feeling of being corralled into a playpen while Big Brother watches to make sure that you don’t have too much fun are recent developments. I was with my friend Chris Nelson and his daughter Katy, both of which took photos for this story, and we remembered a mega show we saw there years ago with Sonic Youth, John Zorn’s Masada, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon and if I remember correctly, Cibo Matto. That was in the 20th century. Now there are new kids on the stage and one thing that hasn’t changed at Summerstage: you’ll hear both old and new music, often on the same bill.
Ultimate Painting opened up last night. If you are not familiar with them they have a nouvelle psychedelic sound, very melodic. Their sound is wet and fluid with ephemeral vocals. They formed in 2014 and feature Jack Cooper and James Hoare, both of whom are vocalists and instrumentalists. Ultimate Painting did selections from their 2016 release Dusk, including “Bills” as well as tunes from their 2015 release Green Lanes. They were received warmly by the home court when the played “Central Park Blues,” which is from their debut self-titled album. “Out in the Cold” was another notable number they did last night. They ended the show with a very extensive jam that droned into a climax. This was a pleasant surprise because to hear their studio tracks they seemed like a song based band but Ultimate Painting delivered the best of both worlds.
You could say Ultimate Painting are the third wave of psychedelic bands. There was the 1960’s, which most people are familiar with, and then there was a second wave in the 1980’s, which had bands like Echo & the Bunnyman, The Cure, as well as the Smiths and R.E.M. to a degree. Today we have Ultimate Painting, Of Clocks and Clouds, and other bands taking the elevator to the 13th floor.
When Yo La Tengo hit the stage the crowd visibly thickened as the veteran indie band emerged. From Hoboken, New Jersey, the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, Old Blue Eyes himself, they have been shoegazing since before their first album was released in 1986. They opened with the funky pop song “Back in the New York Groove,” which was covered by numerous artists including Ace Frehley of Kiss fame and the British glam rock band Sweet back in the 70s. From pop they went to a noise jam. The guitarist Ira Kaplan had the old school set up of having two amps and two guitars, resting the second guitar at full volume on the second amp creating a wall of feedback while the played the first guitar. After having the audience ride through a tunnel of feedback Yo La Tengo then broke into their main repertoire. If you are familiar with them you know that they have an interesting range. They have done funk, they have done noise, and they have done sparse spacey ballads. They did their classic “Autumn Sweater” from their 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. All three members take lead vocals and harmonies at any given time which really broadens the band’s palate. They will switch instruments several times during a show too. Kaplan got on the keyboards and bass player James McNew got on percussion, supporting drummer Georgia Hubley’s rhythmic foundation on one tune.
Of course, everything is a matter of taste. A few years back I saw Yo La Tengo at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell with a friend who would have rather been watching a football game. He was not in the custom of active listening to music and wanted to leave in the middle of the show. I obliged him and we walked out, but I always regretted leaving the show; I liked what I was hearing and didn’t think I would one day be writing reviews on the band one day. Different strokes for different folks. I am glad I had a second chance at seeing Yo La Tengo.
For the finale, Cooper and Hoare from Ultimate Painting came up on the stage and did a three guitar jam session with Yo La Tengo that reverberated into the dark canopies and rising into the velvet sky. From several blocks away the echo of the improvisation could be heard. The city was alive.